Beautiful view at Arenas Doradas, in Varadero, Cuba!
This October Mike and I went on vacation to Cuba with his family! We were a HUGE group – his mom, dad, older brother, his girlfriend, older sister, her boyfriend, younger sister, her boyfriend + his parent’s long-time friends and THEIR friends. There were 14 of us! The flight + hotel was paid for by Mike’s parents (SUPER generous, thank you so much!) and then we were to obviously pay for our own excursions and what have you once we were in Cuba. The trip was to serve as one big family vacation for Mike’s family before everyone really gets on with their own adult lives.
Our trip was from October 10 to 20. We stayed at Arenas Doradas in Varadero, Cuba – an all-inclusive 4-star (4 Cuban stars, 3 North American stars) resort. Varadero is basically the tourist mecca for Cuba – most of the resorts are riddled along the Varadero Beach strip. There’s also a downtown Varadero/town – where the locals live and where there are some market places for tourists. It’s about a two and a half hour drive to Havana – the capital of Cuba. In between there are stretches of countryside, farmland, forests, rivers, towns and ocean water on both sides.
I’ll break down my recap into highlights (and lowlights) and tips for if you’re planning a trip to Cuba – spattered in between photos!
(Skip to the bottom if you just want to get to the TIPS If you’re planning a trip to Cuba).
Beautiful beach and pool
Cayo Blanco Beach in Cuba!
The beaches in Cuba are beaaaaautiful. They are the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced. Clean, clear, blue water and white, white sand. All of the resorts back out onto Varadero beach so the beach is literally steps from your room. The pool at Arenas Doradas features a poolside bar and is surrounded by palm trees – so pretty! On our days at the resort we would alternate between the pool and the beach and back – taking dips in the water as well as just sitting under the sun. Tropical paradise truly applies in this case.
Spending time at the pool at Arenas Doradas in Varadero, Cuba!
Excursions! Catamaran Seafari, Jeep Tour, Snorkelling and Havana City
During our stay in Cuba we took part in a number of excursions. Personally I get bored of laying in the sun and swimming – so I looked forward to our excursion days. Mike and I visited Havana City, went on a Jeep Tour that included snorkelling and a visit to a Cuban ranch, and we also spent a day on a Catamaran sailing out to Cayo Blanco Beach. Depending on the excursion – either all of Mike’s family members came with – or only some did. Some of them went on a fishing trip that we didn’t go on too so it was just a matter of interest/money. Our excursions ranged from between $60-$100 per person.
On the Catamaran Seafari headed to Cayo Blanco Beach in Cuba!
The Catamaran Seafari to Cayo Blanco Beach was probably the best excursion and I absolutely recommend you do it if you go to Cuba. Mike & I opted for the Catamaran excursion that included swimming with dolphins. The other option is just watching a dolphin show at the end of the day. We had so much fun swimming with the dolphins – we got kisses, gave them belly rubs and swam around hanging onto their fins. At first I was worried it would give off an animal cruelty vibe but it didn’t – the dolphins looked and sounded SO happy while we were there (because they get treats after every ‘trick’ lol) and the workers really looked like they loved the dolphins. Swimming with the dolphins cost a bit more money than your regular Catamaran excursion but it is SO worth it! The catamaran itself was huge – had an open bar (I didn’t really drink but I think that’s important to note for a lot of people lol) – and went at a pace that didn’t invoke any seasickness. Laying on the netting out in the sun on the catamaran is a wonderful memory. That excursion also included snorkelling (they provide equipment if you don’t have any) and then you reach Cayo Blanco which has a beach that is even more beautiful than Varadero’s. The excursion also included lunch – hanging out at the beach and then back on the catamaran at the end of the day.
Swimming with and kissing dolphins in Cuba!
The Jeep Tour had some fun but also some boring parts. It includes you riding in a jeep (4 people per jeep – one of you get to drive) – riding on the main and the backroads/countryside of Cuba – then riding speedboats on the Canimar River – swimming in a cave and snorkelling in the ocean – and then heading to a ranch for lunch. The speedboats aren’t very speedy – at least the one we were on was not speedy and therefore it was not that fun. But if you like going at a slower pace and being on the water and checking out the view it works too, lol. The jeep ride got boring quickly – I actually fell asleep for a portion of it. It might be more exciting for the driver – you have to watch for cows and horses and then when you drive in the backroads of town there is a LOT of traffic to watch for.
On the Jeep Tour excursion in Cuba!
Swimming in the cave was also only okay – the cave is extremely dark and I’m not the best swimmer so I didn’t venture too far. You can rent snorkel gear and lifejackets for the cave but the key word is rent – and no one really wanted to rent it, lol. The ranch’s lunch was delicious! It was buffet style and it included CHIPS! My favourite. Mike and I also had some of the best lobster we’ve ever had there.
Chips and Lobster at a Ranch in Cuba!
The rest of the ranch was okay – there were different stations of activities: riding a bull, riding horses, posing for pictures with animals and archery. We rode horses and did the archery – and some of Mike’s family posted for pictures with animals but I had none of that because unlike the dolphins – the ranch really gave off an animal cruelty vibe. There’s just a really sad, small alligator that’s mouth is tied up while you lift it for a picture and then a really sad beaver/tree rat thing that is addicted to some kind of soft drink and poses for a picture with you – but then when it’s not posing it’s tied to a tree. It’s all very depressing. The snorkelling was the BEST part of this excursion – it was even better snorkelling than the one we did on the Catamaran excursion. This snorkel trip we went along the coral – and there were a lot of fish! It also included a photographer who could take a professional photo of you with the fishies. Lots of fun! (Snorkel gear provided to you if you don’t have your own!) It was so much fun.
With the fishies during our snorkeling excursion in Cuba!
Our trip to Havana also had some ups and downs. I would recommend it because how can you go to Cuba and not see their capital city? Our tour guide was very informative and talked a lot. The excursion included the bus ride to Havana – a stop at old fortresses just before you hit the city – a walking tour of Old Havana – lunch and checking out new Havana. You also stop in a museum, the city’s largest market, Revolution Square, a restaurant for lunch and a cigar shop. You get a lot of history and you see a lot of old buildings during the Havana tour. The biggest downside to the Havana trip was all of the beggars – and there are a lot. Mike’s sister went to Havana 10 years ago and said that trip was nothing like this time around. Cubans were recently given more independence and freedom to make more of their own money and that for a lot of people translates into begging for money. Our walking tour was almost nightmarish – kids asking you for money or candy and people trying to sell you something left and right. It was very unpleasant.
The City of Havana behind us – in Cuba!
The Havana tour is exhausting and the longest of the tours we did. After lunch (which was a very tasty rice, beans and pork combination) – most of us were too tired to want to do anything else. The cigar shop was interesting (and packed). Our tour guide warned us before we got off the bus to the cigar shop that there would be people trying to sell us their cheap cigars. She said “I don’t like going here but I have to do because it’s part of the tour” because it’s actually rather scary. The path to the cigar shop entrance is locked and enclosed – to keep out the aggressive people selling their cheap cigars. I guess they don’t like the tour guides because the tour guides tell everyone not to buy from them – I don’t know who would anyway, totally shady.
Cigar shop employee demonstrates how to smoke a cigar in Havana, Cuba!
We bought some souvenirs at the big market (a lot of it is the same as what you could get at the tourist market in Varadero though) and then were on our way home at last. (There is also an extended Havana tour where you actually stay at a hotel overnight – go to a Tropicana Show – and then do more exploring on your own the next day. It costs more money and given the amount of beggars we experienced, I’m glad we didn’t do it – though I’ve heard great things about the Tropicana Show!) All in all – a long, tiring, at times unpleasant (because of the beggars) day, but one that I’m glad I did and got to experience. You learn a LOT about Cuba/Havana and the history and you get to see a lot that you obviously wouldn’t just hanging out at the resort.
The tourist market in downtown Varadero, Cuba!
On the brighter side our trip(s) to downtown Varadero was a lot more low-key with no beggars. We visited the markets and we tried one of the restaurants ‘La Fondue’ while we were there. Loved it. On a return trip I’d be sure to try more of the town’s restaurants as opposed to the resort’s buffets (which were fine, but needed more variety and kind of got boring after 10 days).
With ‘Yu El’ – a groundskeeper at Arenas Doradas in Varadero, Cuba! He picked me flowers and cut Mike and I coconuts during our stay.
I loved the staff at our resort. They were so nice. The entertainment staff, one particular waitress in the buffet restaurant, waiters/waitresses at the pool snack bar, a wonderful groundskeeper, the lobby bar staff and our maid all helped make our experience there terrific. A smile really goes a long way and boy did they smile!!! One of the groundskeepers was so nice to us – on our first morning there, he cut Mike a coconut and he picked me a flower. Later on he gave me more flowers and on our last day he cut us another coconut and gave us a grasshopper he made from leaves!!!! Amazing. His name was “Yu El.” The entertainment staff were so funny and so nice! Two in particular – one named “Yu Ya” and another “Mar-Lyn” were so fun. I won a bottle of rum in a game that Yu Ya organized and Mike won a bottle of rum in a game Mar-Lyn organized! The one particular waitress we loved at the buffet restaurant was named “Oyeda” and she was so sweet. She had a really warm smile and always said “No you’re welcome” when we said thank you. She also often said “nice to meet you” after “you’re welcome” so I think someone must have taught her English incorrectly along the way because she said “nice to meet you” many times after already having met us – but we didn’t have the heart to tell her because she always said it with such a huge smile!
Our maid at Arenas Doradas folded our sheets in a fun, creative design each day! Awesome.
Our maid “Dianexis” folded our sheets in fun, creative ways each and every day and she left us nice notes. On our last day she said she wished us all the best in our personal life and in our work lives and she said she hopes we return to Cuba sometime. :) Just so pleasant. Our tour guide kept saying how people fall in love with Cuba and I didn’t really believe her but I think she might have meant ‘with the Cuban people’ because I could see that happening – they’re so nice (or maybe they were just extra nice to us because we are bringing in tourism dollars and tips and what not… lol either way!) We brought little gifts and knickknacks to give to the staff (more on that below under ‘Tips for if you’re headed to Cuba’) and they were all SUPER appreciative!!
The Cave! (Night club) and other entertainment
Performance at The Cave nightclub in Varadero, Cuba
For most of our trip we just took in the shows that were at our resort. The resort had an entertainment staff who were responsible for daytime activities as well as nighttime shows. The daytime activities were fun and the shows were pretty good – though we didn’t end up going to very many shows because they didn’t start until 9:30 at night and honestly I was pooped by that time. Tired and ready to go to bed. Though I’m sure most people aren’t like me so you can definitely enjoy your resort shows. On one of the nights that we were there we also went to a nearby night club called The Cave (or the Pirate Cave). It’s a night club that’s actually IN a cave. So cool. There are shows at the Cave as well – and wow! Actually totally made the shows at our resort pale in comparison. Great singers, great dancers, so much fun. Then after the show it became your regular club with club music. Mike’s sister Amanda had suggested we go and I’m glad she did! It was really fun. We also weren’t the only Canadians there – in fact most of the club appeared to be populated by Canadians. The DJ asked ‘are there Canadians in the house???’ and basically everyone screamed. :)
Tips for if you’re travelling to Cuba
Exchange just a little bit of money each day
You exchange your money into Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) at your resort. I would recommend exchanging just a bit each day for your day-to-day activities (bring with you lots of $20 bills from Canada). Mike and I exchanged around $60 every couple days and kept the rest of our money in a safe in our room. This is so we still have Canadian money in case we don’t use all of our money, so that if you’re robbed while doing something that day they can only take so much from you (not that you would be robbed but just to be cautious!), and also the exchange rate is interesting there as you get less money back converting CDN to CUC and you also get less money back converting CUC to CDN. Also have a VISA or MasterCard on you (or in your safe) just in case. They take credit card there (not American Express! for obvious reasons) so if you are in an emergency and run out of cash, credit card backup is the way to go.
Definitely rent a safe
For most places I’ve travelled before, I would usually keep my passport and money on me/in my bag at all times. This isn’t the way to go in Cuba. They have safes in every room and you can rent them for such and such amount of money per day that you’re there (I forget how much ours cost, but it’s really not much). I definitely recommend you rent a safe and leave your passport and other important documents and money locked up in the safe. It’s just smart and you won’t worry about it on your day-to-day excursions and activities.
Bring gifts for the Cubans
Now before we went to Cuba we read and were told by different people that we should bring gifts to give to Cuban men, women and children. My advice would still be to bring gifts but we mostly ended up giving our gifts to our hotel staff. When we went to Havana – as I wrote above, most of the kids we encountered were aggressive and begging for money and candy and presents. I did not want to give them anything. In the smaller towns we visited there were actual kids that people that looked like they could use gifts but then you face the awkward situation of getting out of your taxi or your jeep or going out of your way to give them a bag of items, which let’s face it, sounds as awkward as it is. We felt a lot more comfortable giving gifts to our hotel staff because we became very familiar with our hotel staff. Leaving items for the maid is the easiest obviously – you can just leave it in your room. We also gave to our servers, pool towel lady, and groundskeeper. That is also along with $1 tips every few days. Our maid definitely got the most tips but we also made a point to leave $1 for the rest of the staff including the bartenders, the breakfast omelette/egg maker, the pasta maker, the entertainment staff, etc.
Stuff you should bring? Gum, pencils, notepads, soaps, crayons, candy and little toys for the kids, old shirts, old hats, basically any knickknacks you can find at a dollar store here – they really appreciate over there!
Bring lots of sunscreen and … bug spray?
Just kidding on the bug spray – but depending on what resort you stay at, you may be in for some cockroaches. I had a great time at Arenas Doradas and I loved our staff and the grounds were kept beautifully but our group did experience cockroaches in and around our rooms. To be fair our rooms also opened out onto the grounds – and weren’t just in one big building – so I think we were more susceptible to them because of that. But also to be fair, we are on a tropical island: you’re going to encounter some creatures. Because our room was on bottom level and opened out onto the grounds – Mike and I put an extra blanket that’s provided in our room on the ground and covered up the small gap at the door every night – to reduce amount of creepy crawlers coming in. And it worked! We didn’t actually have any real bug problems. Others in our group did find cockroaches in THEIR rooms though. Also depending on where you stay, a lot of us felt really itchy every morning /overnight. We didn’t actually SEE any bugs but we got some random bug bites out of nowhere showing up on our arms and legs so there’s definitely something in the sheets or on the bed or SOMETHING… I’m not sure if this would apply to other resorts or just our own but just a warning you may experience that.
Bring toilet paper and wipes!!!
Okay so apparently in Cuba… toilet seats aren’t a thing? Well I didn’t go to all the bathrooms obviously, but almost every bathroom we went to that wasn’t in our resort – didn’t have a toilet seat. What! And not just that but toilet paper isn’t provided unless you tip. I guess you don’t have to tip, you could just take the bathroom attendant’s toilet paper and then walk out with no tip – but then you’d feel really douchey, so obviously if you’re going to use their toilet paper, you should tip them. I absolutely recommend you bring at least a roll of toilet paper and some wipes. Rip a bit up and put it in your bag for every day Just in case. You’ll need the toilet paper to obviously wipe – but you need the wipes to wipe down the toilet itself because for whatever reason, there always appeared to be some leftover urine or whatever liquid … on the toilet. Eep. I actually started to avoid using public bathrooms very fast in Cuba – and opted instead to hold it in until we got back to our resort – or … hello ocean water… Need I say more, lol.
If you want to charge your phone or camera… bring a power converter
The power outlets are different in Cuba than they are in North America. You need a 220V > 110V power converter (we ended up getting a multi-converting power package from Wal-Mart for about $30. Comes with a nice portable box with different plug ins to fit different outlets! Handy). We were the only ones in our big group who brought a power converter – so throughout the vacation everyone gave us their cameras and phones to charge for them. It was also nice to have the converter so I could use my flat-iron – even though I didn’t really use it much because why bother when you’re just going to get your hair wet in the water, or it’s just going to flatten out as you sweat in the heat, lol.
No Internet or Wi-Fi. Be prepared to ‘sign off’
You have to pay to use Internet at resorts in Cuba. For us it was about $5 for 30 minutes – which seems like a lot at first but then you realize how slow the connection is and you find the 30 minutes is eaten up VERY fast as you sit and stare at the computer screen, waiting for a page to load. Good for checking email every couple of days but not good for anything else really. Be prepared!
Remember your $25 departure tax!
In Cuba, there are no taxes except this ‘departure tax’ for their tourism industry. Every single person who wants to leave the country has to pay a $25 (25 CUC) departure tax. If you don’t, you’re not leaving Cuba. Lol. So make sure you set aside your $25 at the start of the trip (in your safe) so that you don’t end up running out of money!! In emergency situations I think they do take credit card at the airport but that’s for an emergency situation. We actually had a couple in line with us on our way out of Cuba who didn’t have ANY cash left and so the girl started crying because she thought they weren’t going to be able to leave – and then the guy asked everyone in line if they could give them $50 and someone actually did! It’s absolutely ridiculous of them though – you’re reminded as soon as you get to Cuba, your airline (depending) will give you a reminder about it, your tour guides and airport bus shuttles will remind you, your resort staff reminds you – you have to be pretty daft to forget you need $25 to leave. But just a friendly reminder for you fine readers! ;)
Bring lots of books
For the pool and the beach. I get bored laying around fast – and I ended up bringing one book to read by the beach/pool but I finished it within the first two days that we were there. Not good. I wish I had brought a couple. I think it would have made the days go by a bit faster. Of course a lot of people do enjoy just laying out in the sun by the beach or pool for hours a time without doing anything else so. I have just never been to an all-inclusive tropical destination before so I wasn’t sure what kind of person I was going to be – lo and behold – I needed excursions or books, lol (or Wi-fi).
Bring ketchup and seasoning salt!!
Prior to heading to Cuba we had a lot of people tell us how bland the food was going to be because Cuba can’t import with the U.S. So we brought ketchup, salt and pepper, and seasoning salt with us. We ended up using all of our ketchup while we were there (for the breakfasts and fries). We used a bit of seasoning salt as well but not as much on the pepper or regular salt. The last time Mike’s sister had been to Cuba they didn’t have salt and pepper at the tables but this time around – they do! Albeit, it’s not quite the same salt or pepper taste as we’re used to. So bring some seasoning, you’ll thank me later! This mainly applies to the resort food – our meals at restaurants off-resort were tasty and/or had sauces that were tasty. But next time I go I may bring soya sauce too.
I heart Varadero, Cuba!
I miss Cuba terribly. While I was there I was ready to go to home because I felt the vacation was too long – sitting by the pool was too boring – and the idea of cockroaches and itchy bug bites was too much (wah wah wah) – but now that I’m home I think back fondly to my Cuban tropical paradise vacation and the wonderful Cubans we met and the beautiful landscape and the relaxation and cute pictures. Sigh.
Be sure to read my Edmonton Sun Social Media Column on the #firstworldproblems perspective I experienced during my Cuba trip as well!
I would absolutely like to return to Cuba in the future! Not in the immediate future – as we’d like to visit other areas of the world at least once first before returning back to somewhere we’ve already been. And while we had a great time at Arenas Doradas – I’d also like to try other resorts so I can compare. :) Now that there are direct flights to Cuba out of Edmonton, I imagine after we visit a few other places we’ll be heading back to fun in the sun there!
So, have you been to Cuba? What did you think??