I have been meaning to write this blog entry for so long but with the timing of our trip (we went to Iceland two weeks after this), the onslaught of Holiday season, my 7.5 year-old laptop in its final stretch, and returning to school while working, it is easy to see why I had to delay this. But I have a few hours to spare today (thank goodness for long weekends!) so now you can read about our holiday trip to Cuba last October.
As you guys are well-aware the second half of 2015 and pretty much the whole 2016 was pretty jam-packed for me and my husband. We got married, I moved to Toronto, looked for a job, got a job (after 8 months), my husband got a new position in the company, we moved out of my in-laws, my husband went back to school, all that fun stuff. So during the crazy start that we had as husband and wife we decided to postpone our honeymoon. We were dying to travel, but had to prioritize the important stuff. Tl;dr after getting ourselves settled, we finally decided to try an all-inclusive type of trip for our honeymoon by booking a trip to Varadero, and then decided to spend a couple of days in Havana.
Arriving at Varadero
So last October we’ve arrived at Matanzas province (where Varadero is located) via Juan Gualberto Gómez Airport. Customs line-up is long but once you made it to the security it’s quick and there was also no delay at the luggage pick-up. Various people outside the arrivals held signs with the airlines’ names printed on it (in our case, Air Canada) to let people know which shuttle bus you need to take in order to arrive at your hotel. K decided to get our money exchanged at the airport first as we heard that the exchange rates are better. Speaking of money exchange, make sure you have a printed copy of the recent exchange rate, and ask for a receipt during each transaction.
We arrived at our hotel possibly around past 2 in the afternoon. Ours was situated at the end of the resort strip, so we pretty much saw the rest of the hotels that lined up the coast. We had to wait for our room to be ready (also we’re really hungry) so we decided to quickly eat at the buffet restaurant which is conveniently located close to the main lobby. Suffice to say that mediocre food is a common theme throughout this trip (but we were ready, as we have small containers and packets of condiments as advised by a few colleagues). While waiting, we had a sip of (one of the many we had) mojito and piña colada. We also did the rest of our housekeeping by booking our ala carte dinner, as well as check the time when the shuttle bus is leaving for the airport (you can find these information by going to the promenade which is located below the hotel’s main lobby).
After finally getting into our designated room (we requested a view close to the marina) we freshened up, breathed the salty air and decided to walk around the marina. There are restaurants located in the marina but not owned by the hotel but something nice to check out. We went to one of the hop on, hop off bus stop and spoke with the bus driver who gave us the route list (here’s a scanned copy for your convenience!). (Note: you purchase a ticket on the bus for CUC 5 per person, and you get a ticket valid for the whole day. It looks like this.) As we ended up eating fairly late we only had some light snacks for dinner and then prepped for our trip the next day to Havana.
Cuba’s very own cola trio, similar to Coke, Sprite, and Crush/Fanta/Royal, and Cristal beer
Two Days at Havana
So I mentioned earlier that K and I went to Havana the next day. We decided that it is more economical to take the local inter-provincial bus Viazul. To get there it is better for us to take the hop-on, hop-off bus from our resort, all the way to downtown Varadero where the Viazul bus station is located (get off at Calle 36 and then cross the road all the way to the end until you find the blue building).
Now, some tips about taking Viazul. Before our trip we bought our tickets online (to Havana and back to Varadero) which costed us around USD $12.00 per person. However, this does not guarantee your seat number (you don’t get any) or your spot, so you have to be at the station at least an hour before departure. In addition to that, the confirmation you received online has to be exchanged for the actual ticket (which is a classic dot-matrix print-out) so make sure you head to the ticket booth and present your paperwork. Another tip is to make sure you bring a cardigan or jacket with you – while it is hot outside, inside the bus gets fairly cold and chilly.
The trip to Havana is around 3 hours, so we did manage to eat up at the hotel buffet before leaving. I also brought a couple of cans of pop and a bottle of water for the trip, as well as some snacks. While on the bus I had a nice chat with a British gentleman who actually has some relatives in Toronto.
Shortly past 3:30 in the afternoon we finally arrived at Havana – the first ‘bus stop’ is within the Old Havana area shortly after the bus passes the tunel dela Habana. From here you will be surrounded by taxi drivers, ‘casa owners’, and jiniteros asking you to check out their casa/get a cab. If you researched before hand this shouldn’t be a problem at all, be polite when refusing their offers. Anyway, since our destination is in close proximity the bus stop was pretty convenient for us. While walking, our senses were overloaded with excitement, a tinge of nostalgia, awe, and wonder.
Eventually we found our home for the next couple of days, a casa particular located close to Paseo de Marti/Prado. I don’t know where to begin – this place was amazing. It was an inexpensive place to stay at the centre of it all – very convenient as K and I pretty much walked a lot during our stay. We also got the additional breakfast for CUC 5 per person. The owners, husband and wife Orlando and Maura, were very nice, accommodating, and answered our questions to the best of their abilities (thank goodness for Google Translate). The room we had has its own toilet and bath, had enough pillows and towels and the place was well-kept. It was way cleaner than our hotel back in Varadero.
The view from our casa particular’s balcony
After freshening up, we ventured outside the streets of Havana, taking photos and pretty much everything in. It was a very vibrant scene that we haven’t witnessed in a while, and we loved it. The weather was amazing too!
I mentioned that our casa is really just right across Prado and walking distance to pretty much anything that helps you easily recognize Havana: the buildings along the El Capitolio (which was under renovation) and Malecón. Since we arrived later in the afternoon, we decided to enjoy the hustle and bustle without getting all worked up as we knew we have enough time the next day.
Beautiful sunset at Malecon
For our dinner we decided to check out a paladar (self-run restaurants) close to our casa, Doña Blanquita (Paseo de Marti No 158 btwn Colon & Refugio). We had a nice Princess Steak (grilled pork steak with ham and cheese – cheese seems to be predominantly an ingredient for a lot of food, we noticed), and the classic Ropa Vieja, which is a shredded beef stew – a classic Cuban dish.
left: princess steak; right: ropa vieja. Both had ensalada, rice, and fried plantains on the side
left: flan, similar to the Filipino food leche flan; right: our bill
Suffice to say that we enjoyed our meal very much (despite the slow service) and we went back to our casa very happy and satiated, ready for the next day’s adventure.
left: fruit danish/fritters with guava and coconut; right: egg omelette with ham and cheese
I mentioned earlier that K and I opted to get breakfast as part of our stay at the casa particular. We thought that it would be better to get breakfast at the casa, logistics-wise. Turned out it was a great idea and not to mention that our breakfast was like a fiesta. If you don’t know what I am talking about, see the photo below:
We had fritters, omelette, bread, juices, coffee (which was so good, we bought some home), and fruit cocktail. Even though we paid for the food, I can say that we were spoilt, to say the least.
Shortly after our breakfast we headed out to our carefully-mapped destination: Havana Vieja (Old Havana). We checked out churches (until we got churched-out), various old buildings and forts, the famous Plaza de Armas and Plaza Vieja.
Now something to keep in mind about traveling to Havana. First, there are a lot of people who thought that we were Chinese (oh, yes, the Asian Invasion has arrived there), so people are initially surprised that we’re from Canada. Second, everyone seems to have a relative in Canada. I don’t know about the Cuban population in my home country, and if they say the same thing to other tourists (e.g. I have a relative in [insert country here]), so take this with a grain of salt. Third, never, EVER, follow someone when they tell you that they will bring you to their place and introduce you to their family. We had a similar situation when someone told us there’s live musicians playing close to Prado, and when he found out that we’re enjoying the music, he invited us to his place. To which we politely decline. No gracias is a helpful phrase to learn.
Other than that, Havana is very safe place. Honestly I am actually more apprehensive of fellow tourists who act all high and mighty while in Havana (seriously, I heard and read people complained about how third world Cuba is, and some I saw wasting food. WHY OH WHY?). We encountered a few of theme during our stay, to which I will just refrain from commenting online and move on with this post.
For lunch, we decided to have some tapas-style meal at 304 O’Reilly (O’Reilley # 304-no kidding). The food was good and the piña colada? The best one I had!
left: Chinese-inspired sauteed shrimp; right: 3 style tacos
AHMAZING PIÑA COLADA.
I completely forgot that Fototeca is closed on Mondays so our trip here got cut short. :p We then decided to have coffee at Cafe Bohemia (San Ignacio #364 along Plaza Vieja) and to rest a bit. We had the Espresso Bohemia which was so delicious.
Before we headed back to our casa K requested that we drop by Floridita (Obispo 557 esq a Monserrate) to try out their famous daiquiri. Famed for being one of Ernest Hemingway’s frequent hangouts in Cuba, the place was packed and the bar was really busy.
For our splurge dinner-date, my husband and I went to check out La Guarida (418 Concordia), which is famous as being the main setting for the movie Fresa y Chocolate. Being a popular destination we made our reservation in advance and had the help of our casa owner to make sure that we re-confirm the day before our dinner.
I can say that the ambience was really something (the restaurant is within a housing complex, but inside is very romantic and atmospheric), although despite being highly ranked on travel sites, my husband and I were a bit underwhelmed by the dishes. I did enjoy my lobster rice, although my husband has a different response to his steak. We also noticed how our server turned to someone nice and accommodating to someone who pretty much ignored us just because we didn’t want to order dessert.
Over-all it was an OK experience, but it’s funny how we compared this to our inexpensive dinner at Doña Blanquita we had the night before.
Returning to Varadero
The next day we had our last breakfast in Havana and said our goodbyes to our wonderful host. We had our only taxi trip on the way to the Viazul station, as it is very far away from where the majority of the casa is. We suggest that if your casa owner knows a taxi driver better had this arranged with them. Prior to that K and I decided to buy Cafe Serrano at one of the small mercado close to our casa, to bring home for ourselves and for my parents.
After the 3-hr bus trip from Havana, we took the hop-on, hop-off bus but instead of heading straight back to our hotel we decided to have a little detour by going to Plaza America and have a late lunch (again).
We initially headed to the bank first to get our money exchanged, and then went to Pizza Piazza (formerly Pizza Nova), which is inside the plaza. K’s colleague insisted that we go here for the pizza. At first I thought, “Pizza? In Cuba?” But we were not disappointed. We had the shrimp and lobster pizza and it was SO. GOOD. Also we were hungry so all the more better. We finished the huge pan and we went back to the hotel happy. 😀
We pretty much swam, walked on the beach, eat, drink, and went to downtown Varadero (again) for the rest of our stay. We also ate at three ala carte restaurants inside the hotel, in which only the last one (Don Ernesto) was the one we enjoyed the most. But still, keep in mind that the staff make use of what they have to serve us tourists, I think overall things aren’t that bad.
One of the beaches close to Plaza America. Cuba’s beach areas are amazing.
My husband brought me to La Casa de Al which is all the way on the other end of the Varadero hotel strip. This is a restaurant close to the beach (the view was magnificent) and where (allegedly) Al Capone used to hang out. We ordered paella and fillet mignon for lunch – this time I didn’t enjoy the paella that much (it was good but the umami was a bit overwhelming) while my husband enjoyed both dishes.
We spent our last day how it should be spent: again at the pool, having lunch near the beach, and relaxing.
I had a bad experience on our first lunch at El Pescador, which is the restaurant close to the beach. But the next time we went there my next order was not bad at all.
Overall I had a great time during this trip, not only that I get to experience an all-inclusive type of vacation, I was also able to cross-out Cuba as one of my dream destinations (two birds in one stone!).
PS: make sure to give yourself plenty of time to leave (follow the shuttle schedule at your hotel). As the airport in Varadero is small it is no surprise that it cannot accommodate the influx of visitors leaving the country, so there tends to be a bit of a wait. We managed to get out of security just in time for boarding. Also be aware of *our neighbors* who tend to cut off the line. Need I say more about this?
You can view the rest of my photos here. I haven’t uploaded everything at the time of this writing.