My mom and I booked a 10-night stay at Melia Marina Varadero because it was cheap. When we arrived, our resort hadn’t turned on the electricity to our room, our mini bar was empty, our shower wouldn’t work and we hadn’t even gotten the right room.
Still, we were in Cuba. The sun was blazing, the Latin music was swinging and the food was as wildly disappointing as I had been warned about.
We arrived on a Sunday, with a tour bus full of Canadians. We spent our first few days on the beach near our hotel before embarking on a catamaran tour through Westjet Vacations. The boat included an all-inclusive open bar, which I took advantage of and enjoyed numerous plastic cups full of coke and Havana Club, as well as the occasional Cristal. The catamaran took us to a small island: Cayo Blancho.
This is absolutely the ideal reason to come to Cuba: escapes like this are paradise. The water was liquid lime green, almost fluorescent. It curdled like turpentine in the darker hues, as blue as the Curcos Azul I sipped from a plastic cup. The sand was white, soft and fluffy. My footprints sank in and unearthed pastel sea-shells, hermit crabs and sparse strands of slimy seaweed.
On Wednesday, we took a discounted day tour to Havana. I usually hate bus trips, and this one was no exception. The city itself was amazing, but the tour was a cookie-cutter version of tourism. “Now we’ll go to the same shop, the same restaurant and the same pit stop as all the other tour buses! Woooh conformity!”
The ride from Varadero took an hour and a half longer than it should have, due to 10 hotel pick ups. Our first stop was a viewpoint, where we could distinguish between Old and New Havana.
Cuba’s got a crazy history. For the first time in over 40 years, the American flag is flying over their embassy. Still, Canadian flags are predominant, and our Cuban tour guides seemed to still hold a grudge against the ‘Mericans that came in and “interfered”—effectively turning their gorgeous island into a brothel; using Cuba as a tissue they could later toss aside. Che Guavara and Fidel Castro united the people into its current state of communism, and Castro’s brother now rules the island. I have to wonder how Fidel feels at the imminent arrival of the yanks.
Some of the buildings in Cuba’s capital are a rainbow of colour. Others are grey, boxy, lifeless communist structures. We saw three historical squares, including Revolutionary Square. After an unsatisfying buffet lunch, we embarked on a walking tour through old Havana. We visited the hotel Hemingway lived in for 7 years as well as the bar he frequented. On our last hour of free time, we simply wandered and tried to get a feel for the city.
We did one final tour that took us through 3 cities overnight: Trinidad, Sanata Cruse, and Cienfuegos.
I adored Cienfuegos. Named after a French commander, it translates to “a hundred fires.” Mint-green buildings face a square full of statues. Small streets, lined with souvenir stands, lead to the seafront.
Up in the mountains, there were little huts that people must live in. The road inlsnf was rough, bumpy and narrow. A short hike through the jungle took us to the cascading waterfall Nincho. We swam in the frigid, fresh water, and climbed around the textured rocks.
Trinidad is a colourful city, full of life and charm. It’s not as busy as Havana, though there are still plenty of tourists traps (such as the flea market in the old city). My favourite part of Trinidad was the view from the old church’s bell tower (which has now been converted into a museum) and sipping a beer on the steps of the main square, listening to music in the evening.
Santa Clara is the city where Che Guerva, the national hero and international martyr, is buried. The city is much more modern than the historical Spanish architecture in the other cities. The main square has recently been equipped with wifi (which you have to pay for, of course).
Part of the charm of places like Cuba is that they’re so starkly different from Canada. Cuba is only just starting to get wifi, still full of 50s bubbly cars and lacking in flavourful food. Bathrooms rarely have toilets with lids and you are expected to pay for toilet paper. But the weather and the beach – Cuba definitely has those, and they are amazing.
From what I could tell, life is still hard for the Cuban people. Our tour guide to the waterfall told me, “in Cuba we don’t live, we invite.” Because of communism, everyone appears to be on the same level of poverty. Sometimes, they can’t get bread. But everyone is entitled to the same rations. Everyone can vote, for the one party.
Our guide spoke fluent English, French and Spanish. She studied Languages, for free, at university. She could be a professor, a translator, or an intrupretor with her qualifications. But she chose to be in the tourism industry, because each of these professions yielded the same wage – about 20 CUC, or $30 per month. But as a tour guide, she gets tips. It’s the one way Cubans can get ahead. It’s what makes me wonder if my visit – my rum and cigar purchases, my resort complaints, my high expectations – is helping or hurting.
We had a fantastic ten days exploring Cuba, but it couldn’t all be sunshine and sea. Our last few days were windy and cloudy, making lazy days indoors drinking rather unsatisfying. I’m not sure if I’ll be back to Cuba, but I can definitely recommend you go.