If you go to Cuba with an open heart and open mind, you won’t be disappointed.
We spent the first week of 2018 in Cuba! What a great way to start off the year: warmly coloured sunsets, warm water, warm people. A stark contrast to the bitterly cold -30 degree winds our home in Canada had to deal with that week.
Cuba does so many things very well. The rum being the the most notable. Any way you serve up Cuban rum, it’s good! Mojitos, Pina Coladas and Cuba Libre’s are all excellent choices while in Cuba. We are partial to their Mojitos. If you’re lucky you may find a bartender who makes an excellent Carajillo, or Spanish Coffee, a layered drink made with brandy or rum dating back to when Cuba was a Spanish province. If your ears perked up at coffee, then you’re going to love the fresh, delicious brews Cuba has to offer. Café Cubano is espresso sweetened with demerara sugar as it’s being brewed. If you take your coffee with milk, ask for Cafe con leche, though it’s important to note that some places may only use powdered milk. We tried a cappuccino with powdered milk and barely noticed the difference. However if you’re a tea drinker, the powdered milk will be more noticeable.
If you’re curious about the beaches, yes they are that beautiful. They are arguably the some of the nicest not only in the Caribbean, but the entire world. Varadero has beaches that stretch out for miles so you can wade about in shallow, warm, water all day. Jibacoa is a coral reef paradise with the reef starting right off the beach so you can snorkle all day if the winds aren’t too strong. If the weather permits, you can take diving excursions that only cost about 25 CUC whereas in Varadero diving can be about 45 CUC. Of course that’s still cheaper than diving excursions in many other Caribbean nations. If you’re visiting in winter and the winds are very strong it’s important to check the beach conditions before swimming. The waves and under-tow can be strong, but the water will still be warm so if you’re careful you can still get a good swim in.
What you want to be aware of for are floating man o’ war’s which look like jellyfish but is actually a floating terror that can sting swimmers quite badly. I don’t think they are too common, so check the beach flags daily to make sure these aren’t the reason for a red flag. If you see these in the water or on the beach, unfortunately this is a strictly sun-bathing only day.
The best advice we can give is to set your expectations accordingly when visiting Cuba. The country has been under an embargo for over half a century and that has affected every aspect of Cuban life, including the ability to access certain types of food products. In fact, the only major griping we’ve ever heard about Cuba is about the food. Almost everything you will eat in Cuba is grown locally and this means travellers may be exposed to fruits and vegetables they do not traditionally eat. For us, this is the very reason we travel, plus we love Caribbean produce, but we understand allergies and other dietary needs may get in the way for some. One of us is a vegetarian and while Cuba normally has an abundance of produce to offer, sadly a lot of crop was destroyed by Hurricane Irma. We always travel with a few protein bars in case we find ourselves in need of more protein options. It’s also a good idea to learn some basic Spanish to confirm what’s in the dish being served. If you would like to feel more at home, bring your favourite hot sauce to dinner, spiced nuts or chips to snack on, or peanut butter and maple syrup for breakfast.
A common question we are often asked about Cuba’s resorts: Is there a huge difference between a Cuban four star and a three star? The answer is mostly no, but sort of yes. The food on the resorts is really dependant on the specific resort and area of Cuba you’re in, not the number of stars of the resort. Other factors can affect the quality of food, including natural disasters such as Hurricanes that are notorious for destroying large crops of food. If resort food becomes redundant a great option is to find a local restaurant where the food is usually of much better quality and more authentic than what the resort offers. When booking a resort in Cuba it’s really important to invest some time into reading the reviews of other guests. Reading resort reviews, good and bad can give you a sense of what the resort will be like. If every review you’ve read says the restaurants or rooms are awful then maybe scratch that one off your list. One noticeable difference from a Cuban three star to a four star is the amount of A La Carte restaurants at the resort. The higher the stars, the more a la cartes. From our experience the quality of food from a buffet to an a la carte is roughly the same, the only difference being that you might get food that isn’t served at the buffet like Lobster or Chicken Breast. If diversity in flavours is important to you, than maybe a higher star resort that has differently themed restaurants is best. Or some resorts will offer Asian food on one night, Italian food on another, Canadian BBQ on the next, all in the same restaurant. We chose to stay at a resort that served mostly Cuban food, so some of the options we saw were fried chicken, plantains, stewed pork, fried fish, fish soups, pasta, beans and rice, cassava, roasted squash, sweet potatoes and yuca, fresh or cooked cabbage and lots of fresh bread. Breakfast offered watermelon, papaya, eggs, pancakes, sausages, and croquettes sometimes with just mashed potato and other times with a filling like fish or chicken.
One of the reasons we love Cuba is that it’s safe. This is important to us when booking an all-inclusive as being somewhere for seven days straight can be a little redundant. Getting off the resort is a perfect opportunity to interact with locals and get a more authentic experience. Walking around the rolling hills of Jibacoa we saw many houses, some of which are converted into makeshift restaurants and others gift shops. One of the shop owners was kind enough to invite us into her home, we graciously accepted. We had a few clothes and toys that we wanted to share with the community and her daughter beamed when we handed her a fidget spinner that we bought at our local dollar store. The family insisted on gifting us with a souvenir, a lovely wooden turtle that will always remind us of that day. Moments like this are why we travel. These experiences stay with us long after we’ve packed our bags and headed home. If you’re an animal lover, bringing along leftover flea and tick remedies, or medication for ear and bacterial infections can really benefit farmers and vets who have no access to these things. Medication is harder to come by, and you may run into someone who knows a vet and can arrange to meet with them or visit a clinic while on tour as well.
Another reason we love Cuba is that it’s a vacation bargain hunters dream, especially in the low season. It’s very possible to get a complete package including; food, drinks and airfare at a 3.5-4.5 star for well under a thousand dollars per person.
Havana is a must see for anyone staying close enough to visit. The 15th century colonial city is brimming with colour, life and beauty. At some point during your stay, someone at your resort will offer to provide you with services to see, do or get something such as cuban cigars or a private tour of Havana. Most individuals are polite and will not continue to ask you after you’ve declined once. Private tours in classic cars are frowned upon by some, as the licenses these taxis have might be to transport locals but not tourists so you may not be covered in case of an accident. Due diligence is required to ensure you’re comfortable with the services someone will provide. Private tours are way more affordable than booking a tour with the governments state run tour company. For four people, you can save well over a hundred dollars by getting a private car and tour. From Jibacoa to Havana a classic car tour is about 70 CUC for the whole ride. The taxis are also pretty amazing to look at. They’re mostly restored classic vintage cars from the 1950s. The colours are sublime. I couldn’t stop staring at the pink Cadillacs, but there’s every colour under the rainbow available. The neat thing about private tours is that you can curate your experience by going places the tour company doesn’t, as well as getting a more intimate perspective of the city and country.
Stay in touch! Soon we’ll post a review on the all-inclusive resort we stayed at in Jibacoa.