Get social on social media

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Discovering Cuba: Put it on your bucket list before it’s too late

It has been on my bucket list for a long time to visit Havana, Cuba. I’ve watched every travel and cooking show about this beautiful Island in the Caribbean and I finally fulfilled my dream in December. It was everything I dreamt it would be. We booked a WestJet Vacation and stayed at the Iberostar Laguna Azul in Varadero:  http://www.iberostar.com/en/hotels/varadero/iberostar-laguna-azul
This five-star resort was beautiful and the weather was perfect.  When going to Cuba, you have to remember it is not like other Caribbean Islands. There is very little trade with the outside world. So you will notice a difference in food if you have vacationed at other all-inclusive Resorts.

The first thing anyone says when they come back from Cuba is “The food sucked!” And it does. There are no brand names on anything. So don’t expect Heinz 57 Ketchup, Cheerio’s or Diet Pepsi. You won’t find it. Anyone who has been to Cuba will tell you, “Bring Ketchup, chocolate bars, cereal and toilet paper!” Yes, toilet paper. The first thing you notice at meal time is the meat is a mystery but the pizzas are good.
You may think it is a little crazy to have to bring groceries to an all-inclusive, 5-Star resort but if you don’t, you will miss it. I am glad we did or it would have been a miserable nine days. You will need the toilet paper if you leave the resort to go on excursions. Everywhere you go, there will be a lady outside a bathroom asking for a Peso. That will get you about 5 squares of one-ply toilet paper. So bring a few Pesos! Even if you have your own toilet paper, you still pay to pee!
Remember, Health Canada hasn’t set the rules in Cuba. So after you pee you may or may not have water to wash your hands (that includes employees in restaurants). So bring hand sanitizer and Imodium to take if a stomach bug hits you.

Excursions are not that expensive. An overnight to Havana from Varadero is $175 a person. That includes two full days of walking through Havana, an amazing show at the Tropicana and a night’s stay at the National Hotel of Cuba. It’s well worth the money.
Havana is simply the most beautiful city in the world. The architecture is stunning. You can literally walk around staring at the buildings. There is a lot of reconstructive work happening in Havana, but not enough and not quick enough. These beautiful structures are crumbling from age and derelict. If you peek inside the doorway of any building you will see beautiful Italian marble on the floors and staircases, masterfully carved wood, iron railings and colours you can only see in Cuba. This whole city is a museum.

A trip to Havana is not complete without a visit to The Floridita, the bar Ernest Hemmingway hung out at. Cubans refer to him as “Papa.” A huge brass statue of Papa sits at the bar waiting to see you and discuss the politics of war. Then you can wander the cobble stone streets over to Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Papa lived for years and wrote many a story. His room is kept the way it was when he lived there with some of his personal items on display.  I am huge Hemmingway fan and seeing where he lived and worked was worth the trip to Cuba for me.
The National Hotel of Cuba is a treat. It’s like walking onto the set of a 1959 movie. You expect to see Humphrey Bogart smoking a Cuban Cigar in the main lounge while Bette Davis sashes across the marble floor in her silk gown dragging her feather boa behind her. A Door man is waiting to direct you to the check-in area and a bell boy is waiting to carry your bags. The elevators are the old kind with the collapsing doors that you have to push open and the floor indicators are located above the elevator doors. They are the old fashioned ones with the arrow pointing to numbers. My daughter says “Mom, we are in the Tower of Terror!” The rooms are beautiful but old. There’s a weigh scale in the bathroom. I haven’t seen that in years. The plumbing is old and you have to run it for a few minutes before you shower to let the rust run through. It’s all part of the experience. We wander around the main floor to admire the collection of Grandfather clocks on display in the front lobby. Each an antique made from the finest workmanship. The building is grand. You want to wear three inch heels, a pencil skirt and a big swagger hat with a brim that covers most of your face, only showing the deep red of your Chanel lipstick, just in case you run into Frank Sinatra in the lounge.

Your excursion to Havana includes a show at the world-famous Tropicana. You have never seen a show like this in Vegas. Just a pale imitation. Cuban dancers bring it to a whole new level. The costumes are simply breathtaking. At one point the ladies walked out with full lit, crystal chandeliers on their heads then danced in Cuban rhythm not missing a beat. Your visit to this show includes free Cuban Cigars and a bottle of Cuban Rum. You can drink it there or take it home as souvenir.
When it comes to all-inclusives, they are not my favourite thing to do. I am more of a cruise person. I can lay on a beach for an hour or two but that is the extent of it. I want to get up and explore. Cuba is a great place to do that. We went to the Bellamar Caves http://www.cubano1.com/the-bellamar-caves-in-matanzas-cuba-2/  The caves have been declared a national monument and are a very interesting excursion trip for the family. There is a lot of walking so be prepared. One of the highlights of the caves is to dunk your hands in The Fountains of Youth and Love. I haven’t seen a difference in myself yet.

You can’t leave Cuba without a piece of art. There’s nothing else to buy. It’s available on every corner. The art is beautiful, true works of masters. The paintings show Cuba’s past, the religious and political influence. They combine the old cars, dilapidated buildings, school children in uniforms, the flag. They scream “This is who we are.” You don’t see any outside influence, any view beyond the Cuban horizon, just the isolation of being a Cuban artist. Paintings can cost anywhere from a few Pesos to a hundred Pesos. I bought a beautiful piece for $50 Canadian and second for $25. My husband bought a hand-carved Teak wood saxophone for just $35.
The Cuban people are very nice to deal with. There is no crime against tourists. They would not risk it. Unlike other Caribbean Islands, the Cuban’s are very educated. School is mandatory up to grade nine and after that it is free to the Degree level. So there are no, or few illiterate Cubans. After attaining their Degree, Cubans have to work for the government for two years, or they take the Degree back. After that, they can work where they want. Our Taxi driver told us Cuba’s biggest export is intelligence. They send doctors all over the world! A doctor in Cuba makes about $1,200 a month; a police officer makes $800. Those are the highest official paying professions. Working at the resorts is a prime job, because of the tips on top of their salaries. So the lady cleaning your room may have a PhD in nursing or your bartender maybe a lawyer or doctor. All the resort staff speak up to five languages. They love to talk about their country and learn about yours.

Now that the United States are beginning to lift trade sanctions with Cuba, you will slowly see it change. But in speaking to Cubans during my trip they are not fussy about the American’s coming back. What Cuba does not have is organized crime, drug problems among the youth or the crime stats of an American State and they don’t want them. I did hear a lot of talk about the Arabs who built Dubai rebuilding Cuba and turning it in to the Monte Carlo of the Caribbean. If that happens, in ten years, only the very rich and famous will be able to afford to go to Cuba. So if it is on your bucket list, I suggest you go now, and bring toilet paper, Diet Pepsi, Cheerios and for God sakes, don’t forget the Heinz 57 Ketchup!