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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Cuba

Varadero, Cuba

We lived in Kingston, Ontario at the time and Odyssey Travel was our agent. We booked an all-inclusive vacation with direct flights (via Pearson International Airport) to Club Kawama in Varadero, Cuba through Sunwing Vacations. Our agent at Odyssey helped us choose the area (Varadero -- and it was a very good choice); then we were left to choose the resort. I found this somewhat frustrating because there were very few photographs of any of the resorts.

After booking our package, the departing flight was changed twice, the second time a mere two days before departure. Our flight became indirect and took six hours instead of three. Both flights were provided by Kelowna Flightcraft. It seems that the following occurred: due to an increase in sales (weeks before the flight), a second flight was added and we were moved to it; then due to a lack of expected sales, the second plane was canceled and we were moved back to our original flight; however, there was now an insufficient supply of transportation, so our flight was no longer direct, stopping in Cancun, Mexico to pick up travelers returning to Toronto. In retrospect this wasn't too much of an inconvenience and is probably represented in the relatively low cost of flight.

All the airports were very pleasant. Lines were short and customs and immigration were easy. We boarded the plane shortly before 6am so this may account for the lack of hassle. When we arrived in Cuba, a Sunwing bus was supposed to shuttle us to the resort (already paid for). A man carried our bags 30ft to the bus and expected a tip greater than $2 CDN. Tipping is an important part of the tourism industry in Cuba. Guides, servers, even bus drivers are frequently tipped. In many cases, I found this very reasonable. In the case of the bags I felt ripped off. This is easily remedied by refusing services for which one is not happy to pay.

The Varadero peninsula was a very good choice for our first trip. It is in the province of Matanzas and is dedicated to tourism. There is a nearby airport in which we landed (perhaps the only one in Matanzas) and it was approximately a 35 minute drive to Varadero. Many other tourist locations in Cuba are much farther from the nearest airport. One's choice of hotel in Varadero can also have a big impact on travel time. Generally one travels to and from their hotel on a bus (airport, tours, etcetera). The trip between whatever destination and the base of the Varadero peninsula is generally smooth and direct; however, because the bus must stop at so many hotels as it travels up or down the peninsula, it can take as much as an hour to traverse it from one end to another. This implies that it is very desirable to choose a hotel at the base of the peninsula. Contrasting this, the newer hotels are closer to the tip. Another concern is the natural gas plant in the city (non-tourist) surrounding the base of the peninsula. We were warned that if the wind is in the wrong direction that this can produce a foul smell, but in our seven days, this did not occur.

Club Kawama

Our resort was Club Kawama. It is very near the base (you can see the entrance bridge from it). Maps of the peninsula can be somewhat confusing. A man-made channel divides the peninsula from the mainland. There is only one bridge across this channel. The channel slants across the base of the peninsula, thereby unnaturally lengthening it. The effective base (in terms of travel time) is the bridge, and that is visible from Kawama.

Kawama is one of the oldest resorts on the peninsula. Many of the newer resorts are in the form of the standard, giant American hotel. Club Kawama is a cluster of small buildings. Some are as small as two bedrooms. I was very happy with this layout. The lack of vertical buildup provides a much lower population density. This means that the grounds and beach are less crowded. I took several pictures of some of the nicer units. Our unit was not so nice. It was on the outskirts of the resort, and was one of the largest buildings. When booking the vacation, one was able to pay extra for a nicer room. At many resorts the price difference is based on "garden view" versus "ocean view". At Kawama, rooms were not differentiated in this way -- and reasonably so. The farthest reach was likely less than 100 meters from the beach, and some of the nicest units had interior courtyards. Hence a "garden view" room might be vastly superior to an "ocean view" room. We didn't spend much time in our room, so I'm glad we didn't pay extra; however, I'd say the difference in quality far exceeds the difference in price.

We arrived at the hotel and were given plastic identification bracelets and a room key card. I didn't want to wait for an attendant to bring us to our room (because of the tip) and we had considerable trouble finding it ourselves (definitely would have been worth the tip). The Room was sufficient but sparse. The lavatory was rudimentary at best. The flush toilet smelled strongly of salt water, and the shower was often cold. I believe that hot water is supplied by solar collection units on the rooftops. I think that since our building had many rooms the hot water was often quickly used up. Also, you can't get hot water in the morning, because your reserve has cooled overnight.

The room also had a television with Spanish & American cable, but the reception was poor. There was an air conditioner (never used it, the night sea breeze was cool enough), a mini fridge (never used it) and a radio alarm clock (tricky to use, got wakeup calls instead), all unplugged. There was also a keycard safe that cost 20 pesos (=USD) to activate. This was probably unnecessary. I felt very secure. First of all, there is only one point of access to the peninsula. Second the entire peninsula is resorts. Third you don't really need money because everything is included anyway. Fourth there are several (unarmed) guards on the grounds. When we would come back from a walk on the beach at night, more often than not a guard would emerge from the shadows (there were very few lights, which I appreciated) and ask to see our hotel bracelets. Fourth, tourism (because of tipping) is one of the most profitable professions available to a Cuban, so it is in their interest to treat you fairly. We were very happy. The woman who cleaned our room was unobtrusive and made designs out of the bed sheets. We gave her a tip on the last day. She gave us a knickknack.

Club Kawama has a beautiful beach - the most beautiful beach I've ever seen. We had perfect weather for all seven days, no rain, beautiful skies. Two of the days were more windy than the others, on these days no crafts were allowed on the water, but the waves were great for body surfing. The water was very clear, and the ocean floor was very clean, as was the beach. I brought swimming goggles. I was very glad for these. On the beach there are several cabanas and beach chairs (the kind you lay on). The central part of the beach was busy, and they were hard to get in this area. On the outskirts (where the beach is just as nice) there were always some available. Kayaks and windsurfers were provided by Kawama. These were just laid out on the beach and you took them whenever they were available. There was usually a wait for the windsurfers. They also had a Hobie Cat. You could go sailing on this but on busy days you had to book it in advance. Pastor was the person in charge of it. He was a very experienced sailor. There are pictures of him with Amanda and I. If you know how to sail, he'll let you sail it, but he still has to be on it with you. He was very nice (but his English was not very good). The service was free, but we tipped him whenever we went with him.

Club Kawama has four restaurants. One serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is a buffet. The food is not bad, and there is plenty of it, but it's not particularly good. The other three only serve dinner. They are not buffet, are fancier, have much nicer food, and have to be booked in advance. Each couple is only allowed to book each restaurant once. This is bad because you really don't want to eat dinner at the buffet restaurant since you're there for breakfast and lunch every day. The thing to do is to make friends with another couple that arrived on the same bus. You're sure to meet them at the Sunwing orientation on the second day. Each couple can make an arbitrarily large reservation at each restaurant, so between the two, you get to go to each one twice.

Most of the tourists at Kawama were Canadian, but there were also many Germans. Most signs and information pamphlets were in Spanish, English or German. Throughout our entire trip, we didn't meet anyone that could be described as unpleasant.

Activity

On the bus to the resort we were told that a Sunwing representative would be in the hotel lobby at a certain time on certain days (the next time being tomorrow before lunch). The Sunwing representative spoke very good English and was supposed to help out with any problems, but his main function was actually to sell tours. Very many tours are offered by very many sources. We went on two Sunwing affiliated tours: Havana and Rio Canimar (which are described later on). We paid our Sunwing representative with VISA and we were very happy with both tours. They warn you not to book tours with anyone else (fear mongering, not safe) but I don't believe that is a risk. For example, Pastor (who managed the Hobie Cat) also ran a coral snorkeling tour at a very good price that I'm confident would have been very safe and enjoyable. I do, however, support warnings about the black market. Illegally sold goods are very likely of reduced quality.

There is also quite a bit to do on the Varadero peninsula itself. The peninsula has essentially one street that travels from its tip to its base. There is a double-decker bus for which a full day pass is 5 pesos. It comes by each hotel about every 50 minutes. Near the middle of the peninsula is a flea market district. This is around 44th street. You could really walk there, but the bus is an enjoyable ride. Near the tip of the peninsula there is a mall. It has approximately 30 shops and has an open courtyard. You can buy cigars here (in a climate controlled room) at better prices than from the cigar factory in Havana. There are also some sites: a small cave with indigenous markings, the DuPont mansion, and others. If you plan on stopping at many of these I suggest you rent bicycles or scooters. You probably won't want to stay at each for 50 minutes and each is fairly isolated from each other.

  • Wednesday: Land in an airport in Matanzas, bus to Club Kawama in Varadero, un-pack, hang out on the beach, dinner at the buffet, walk on the beach, sleep.
  • Thursday: Breakfast at the buffet, meet with the Sunwing representative, hang out on the beach, lunch at the buffet, hang out on the beach, dinner at the Cuban restaurant, walk on the beach, sleep.
  • Friday: Breakfast at the buffet, All day tour to Havana, dinner at the Cuban restaurant, walk on the beach, sleep.
  • Saturday: Breakfast at the buffet, hang out on the beach, lunch at the buffet, hang out on the beach, dinner at the International restaurant, walk on the beach, sleep.
  • Sunday: Breakfast at the buffet, double-decker bus around Varadero peninsula, lunch at the buffet, hang out on the beach, dinner at the buffet, walk on the beach, sleep.
  • Monday: Breakfast at the buffet, All day tour including the Rio Canimar river, dinner at the International restaurant, walk on the beach, sleep.
  • Tuesday: Breakfast at the buffet, hang out on the beach, lunch at the buffet, hang out on the beach, dinner at the Italian restaurant (best of the three), walk on the beach, sleep.
  • Wednesday: Breakfast at the buffet, bus to the airport, leave.

Havana Tour

The bus that arrived to take us on the tour was a mid-sized vehicle that could seat maybe 16 passengers. At first I was disappointed by this, assuming that it would be a low-budget affair. I later realized that it was exactly the opposite: the smaller the group, the better the tour. Again, since our resort was near the bridge to the mainland, we had the shortest bus-ride of all the passengers. Our guide told us his name was Neo (an abbreviation) and was very good and very honest. He was formerly a Spanish professor and spoke Spanish, English, German and French. He told us all about the countryside and the Cuban way of life on the two hour bus ride from Varadero to Havana. When we arrived in Havana, the bus broke down (wouldn't start after a brief stop). No problem. Neo just asked another bus driver (waiting on his tour group) to take us to our next stop. That certainly wouldn't fly in a capitalist state. By the time we were done at our next stop, our bus had been repaired.

We visited a cigar factory (the largest one in Havana). It was very interesting, definitely worth seeing. We visited a rum museum. I didn't find it interesting. We were driven around new Havana in classic cars. It was really fun. You got to see lots of Havana fast and up close, and since it was a convertible, it was a wonderful break from the heat. It was definitely worth our time. We also killed some time walking and bussing between stops. This was okay, because Neo was an excellent orator. Lunch was prearranged and was very good. Always choose the pork. The pork is always the best.

Near the end of the tour we walked for more than an hour through old Havana. This was very beautiful and very interesting, but somewhat complicated. It would be very easy to get lost. This section of the city exists solely for tourism. There are very many very poor people in it and they are very good at getting money from tourists. Neo advised us to remove any jewelry, etcetera, and to avoid talking to people. This was good advice. That said, I believe Havana and Cuba in general are safe places. In any tourist zone that one might think was unsafe, there was always a clear police or security presence. At the end of our tour we had some free time in a huge market. It was very busy and a lot of fun. I definitely suggest visiting Havana.

Rio Canimar Tour

This tour had a full sized bus. Our guide was Reinier Vazquez Vera. He was very good, very smart, very honest. He was trained in university as an industrial engineer. After picking us up, we went on about a twenty minute ride to a place were we picked up snorkeling gear. Another ten minutes on the bus and we were at a coral reef. If you're shy, you can dally on the beach and have a short guided snorkel with Reinier, but if you care to go off by yourself (like us) you'll get a lot more out of it. Don't worry about being left behind. He came out to the deep to tell us when it was time to go. While we were in the water, an independent guy approached us and offered to take our photo (underwater) with the fish. I don't have an underwater camera, so this was a great opportunity for me. He wanted to take one picture, print it out nice and big and sell it to me (days later at Kawama) for ten pesos (=USD). In retrospect, I should have asked him to take many photos and just sell me the negatives.

We had about half an hour in the water, which was about perfect because we were getting cold. Then we got back on the bus and back to the spot were we picked up the gear. That spot also happened to have some fresh water caves. This was great because it got the salt off and was warmer than the ocean. There were some rock pillars in the cave that made for excellent jumping and diving platforms. Reinier was the first to go, leading by example. For the entire tour, their was a second man video-taping the tour. At first I thought this was a bad idea, but I warmed up to it later on. The problem is that he's filming everyone, but he knows that not everyone is going to buy a copy. So here's my advice: decide early that you're going to buy it and do lots of cool stuff. That way you'll be star of the show.

After drying off and warming up, it was back on the bus and off to the Rio Canimar River. Here we got on a double-decker boat and had a leisurely cruise to a Cuban ranch. At the ranch we were served lunch and then could participate in a variety of activities, such as: riding horses, riding a bull, messing around with rowboats, or resting in hammocks. After this, we got back on the boat, went back down the river, got back on the bus and went back home. The only part I really liked about this tour was the coral reef (which you can do on your own) so I wouldn't advise it, except that Reinier was such an interesting guy. Because there is lots of sitting around (on the boat and at the ranch) we got to talk to him for quite a while. He was more interesting than most of the other stuff.

Reinier and Neo were definitely the most real look we got of Cuba. Some of the other people, (like the speaker on the bus back to the airport) were all propaganda. But over all, Cuba was a great place. If you don't speak Spanish, then I suggest guided tours.

Cost

~$1,600/person
Total: ~$3,200 = ~$460/day

Other Information (mostly quoted from the Canadian Embassy website)

USD is not accepted in Cuba. Only the Cuban Convertible Peso (which is on a par with USD) is accepted. You may exchange CDN and traveller's cheques at major hotels, banks and International airports without the 10% USD commission fee. You can also exchange back to CDN before leaving the country. The Cuban Convertible Peso cannot be exchanged outside of Cuba. VISA is accepted; AMEX and DEBIT are not. Before boarding your return flight you must pay an Airport tax in CCPs.

If all your ID has been lost/stolen, DO NOT go to the local police. Go to the Canadian Embasy, else you may be held in jail for days until your identity is proven.

Driving in Cuba is dangerous. Canadians should avoid driving. Road travel can be hazardous. Few roads are lit and vehicles rarely have lights or reflectors. Accidents that result in death or injury are treated like crimes, and the onus is on the driver to prove innocence. If the traveller is in any way at fault in an accident, rental agencies will nullify coverage and seek damages to cover the cost of repairs. Rental agencies are government-controlled and can prevent your departure from the country unless payment is obtained.

The Viazul bus company runs a good-quality intercity service, but service is not frequent. City buses are scarce and crowded. Buses tend to be driven at high speed along narrow roads crowded with slower horse-drawn carriages and bikes. The highway between the Guardalavaca hotels and the Holgu?n airport is particularly worrisome in this respect.

The hurricane season in the Caribbean extends from June to November.

Tourists are allowed to bring personal effects duty-free. Personal effects include: new or used articles reasonably needed for a holiday: sports equipment, jewellery, one camera with five rolls of film, one small-mm movie camera with two rolls of film, one video camera, one digital camera, one pair of binoculars, one portable musical instrument, one portable sound recording device, one portable radio receiver and one personal mini-computer (laptop). For further details, go to http://www.aduana.islagrande.cu/

It should be noted that Cuban customs may seize anything that they do not consider to be for the tourist's personal use. Articles prohibited from entry into Cuba include, but are not limited to, walkie-talkies, satellite phones, hand-held GPS equipment, televisions, VCRs, DVD players, freezers, air conditioners, stoves, water heaters, electric frying pans, toasters, and irons (i.e. any item that draws heavily on electricity). Fresh fruits and vegetables and pornographic material are prohibited as well. Such items are routinely seized on arrival, without compensation.

Canadians in Cuba can obtain consular assistance and further information from the Canadian Embassy in Havana or the nearest Consulate of Canada at the following addresses:

  • HAVANA: Canadian Embassy, Calle 30, No. 518 esquina a 7a, Miramar, Havana, Cuba (country and area codes: 53-7/ tel.: 204-2516/ fax: 204-2044/ e-mail address: havan@dfait-maeci.gc.ca/ Web site: www.havana.gc.ca).
  • GUARDALAVACA: Consulate of Canada, Villa Cabanas 13-14, Guardalavaca, Holgu?n, Cuba (country and area codes: 53-24/ tel.: 30-320/ fax : 30-321).
  • VARADERO: Consulate of Canada, Calle 13 e/Avenida Primera y Camino del Mar, Varadero, Mantanzas, Cuba (country and area codes: 53-45/ tel.: 61-2078/ fax: 66-7395).

Canadians should register with the Canadian Embassy in Havana if they are going to be in Cuba for longer than three months. Registration can be done on-line. To register on-line, please proceed to http://www.voyage.gc.ca/main/sos/rocapage-en.asp and complete all the required fields.

For emergency assistance after hours, call the Canadian Embassy in Havana and follow the instructions. You may also call the Department in Ottawa at 613-996-8885.

Canadians are required to travel with a valid Canadian passport. The Cuban Immigration Authorities have confirmed that Canadian passports need to be valid up to one week beyond the date of your return to Canada. In order to avoid problems you should also: (1) carry a tourist card or a business or student visa; (2) always have a return air ticket; and (3) have evidence of sufficient funds for the duration of your stay.

Cuban tourist cards are generally provided by tour operators or airlines, or can be obtained from a Cuban government office in Canada in the case of privately organized flights. A tourist visa is required if you plan to stay at a private residence.

Art objects (including artifacts and paintings) purchased in Cuba must be accompanied by an export permit. State-owned galleries will usually provide customers with the document. Otherwise, the item must be registered with the Registro Nacional de Bienes Culturales (National Registry of Cultural Goods, (country and area codes: 53-7/tel.: 3-9658).

Due to a continuing spate of thefts from luggage, including locked suitcases, valuables should be removed prior to check-in at all airports. To reduce tampering with your luggage, use airport shrink-wrap facilities, which are available at a nominal charge.

For further information, contact the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba, 388 Main Street, Ottawa, ON, K1S 1E3 (tel.: 613-563-0141/ fax: 613-563-0068/ e-mail: cuba@embacuba.ca/ Web site: www.embacuba.ca) or call the Cuban Consulate in Montreal (514-843-8897) or Toronto (416-234-8181).

Havana is the capitol. The official language is Spanish. Basic English and, to a lesser degree, French, are spoken in most resorts. Unscheduled electric power surges and outages are common. Telephone communication is a problem. Calls are often not answered, even at major institutions. Technical problems also exist. Calls may be connected to a different number than the one dialled. It often takes persistence to place a call to another city (particularly after rain).

The following diseases - among others - can occur in Cuba: dengue fever, hepatitis A, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever.