One of the most rewarding and relaxing vacations I’ve been on was to Cuba. I was burnt out, tired, and looking for a vacation deal so I could relax on white sand and dip in the gorgeous blue water. In my online search, a last-minute deal to Cuba won my attention. For C$700 (plus tax) I dragged my mom, kicking and screaming (not really, she was packed and ready to roll before I was), onto the plane! There are some similar deals right now!
Don’t expect 10-star resorts and super high-end food, instead, enjoy the local cuisine, beautiful smiles, and as much seafood as you can handle. I didn’t have any expectations on arrival in Cuba. Our tour guide was entertaining and friendly and kept us laughing all the way from the airport to our resort, Tryp Peninsula Varadero.
Why are all the signs inside our tour bus in Chinese and Spanish? It came from China and even the air conditioning is intermittent because of the humidity.~tour guide
Our resort was beautiful. The staff and security guards were super-friendly and genuinely interested in life outside of Cuba. One guard at the beach was fascinated with my iPhone as his wage was equal to C$25 per month and was not able to purchase one himself.
Our housekeeper greeted us warmly with an amazing flower arrangement that she had a friend make for us. This beautiful bouquet stayed fresh during our entire 7 nights.
My absolute favourite day was an excursion to a “deserted beach” by catamaran. Nothing beats being out on the water surrounded by happy people enjoying the warm sunshine. We swam with the dolphins, snorkelled, relaxed on a white sand beach, and enjoyed a fresh lobster and pasta lunch. I did not want to leave!
Another wonderful day trip we booked was to Havana. You can’t go to Cuba without seeing Havana. It was a long bus ride from Varadero to Havana, but the countryside was engaging so the time passed quickly.
Life in Havana is tough. We met many people who begged for soap and gum (see tip #6 for how we distributed items). I was quite taken aback by museum staff grabbing my camera to take a photo of me and Mom and she wouldn’t give it back to me unless I gave her gum. Just be careful. I was very firm and demanded my camera back, and she complied. That was my only unpleasant experience, which is minor.
Tips for Travelling to Cuba
- Visit Cuba with no expectations. You will be surprised by how much you enjoy the simpler things.
- Bring your own beach towel. Our resort had a limited number of beach towels for guests and we found that because of the humidity, ours did not dry (even out on the balcony overnight) unless we put them in the hot sun at the beach. I recommend bringing a lightweight microfibre towel that will dry quickly.
- Bring your own travel mug. There is no staff at the beach or by the pool to bring you drinks all day (at least at the resort I stayed at), so in order to avoid spending all day standing in line for a small plastic cup, bring a travel mug with a lid.
- Enjoy THEIR cuisine. I had no complaints about the food, though I know other travellers were not happy with the choices. I ate fresh seafood every day for lunch and dinner, I was in Heaven. You’re in another country to experience their culture and taste Cuban food. Enjoy it! The pop even tastes different (better) because it’s sweetened with cane sugar instead of corn syrup.
- Currency (UPDATED). Cuba eliminated the dual currency in January 2021 and the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is no longer accepted and CUP (Cuban Peso) is the only accepted currency. How do you tell the difference? The CUP bills have faces on them. All resorts and hotels accept CUP as well as street vendors, bus fares, and for street food, so make sure you have the lower denomination. You can also bring Euros or Pounds. As a traveller, US dollars are not accepted in Cuba and even the currency exchanges in the airports are no longer exchanging US dollars for CUPs. You can’t use debit or credit cards issued by US banks either. Canadian dollars are accepted…Cubans love Canadians!
- Tip Cubans with Products. Many of us like to bring gifts for our housekeepers at the resorts or to give to children on the street, or in schools. What we found to be the best way to share these items is as follows. For our housekeeper we left nail polish, pretty scents, soaps, and personal care items in our room, a few at a time. These can easily be picked up at your local dollar store. For the children in the community, we found it best to give items to a teacher or local church, to distribute to the children as rewards. Some good examples are colouring books, crayons, pencils, hair ties, chewing gum, and candy—smaller items that are easy to pack in your suitcase.
- Meet as many locals as you can. Cubans are beautiful people full of laughter and enjoy chatting with visitors to their beautiful country. Make sure you meet them! Leave your resort and enjoy yourselves!
- Unplug. This may not be your choice, but internet and cell service are rare and slow in Cuba. I was able to send text messages but no photos, no social media, and even buying time at the computer in the resort was slow and frustrating. Alternately, I turned off my phone, “ziploced” it (yes, I kept it in a ziploc bag because of the humidity) and enjoyed my time at the beach.
If you’ve experienced something different from me, please add your comments below! I’d like to hear about other experiences in anticipation of my next visit.