Your resort or travel company will offer numerous excursions you can book during your stay for an added charge. It might feel like a bit of an upsell, but the excursions can make the trip truly memorable and give you an opportunity to get off the resort and see more of the country.
The Cuban capital is only a two-hour drive away from Varadero, and is well worth a day trip. You can book a taxi and head there on your own, or take a tour that includes both the old and new parts of town, plus lunch. Cuba’s tour guides are friendly, knowledgeable and entertaining in their own right.
A day on the water may be more your style, and many resorts offer a variety of packages that involve sailing, snorkeling, beach barbecues, cave exploration and even swimming with dolphins. If sun and surf are what you’re seeking, an exciting day on the water may end up being the most memorable part of your trip.
Activities and Entertainment
The arts and entertainment community in Varadero is vibrant, and your resort will likely provide numerous entertainment options, from nightly music and theatrical performances, to daily shows on the beach, around the pool or in the lobby.
Take advantage of the local talent and turn off the TV in your room in favour of the live nightly entertainment. Check out your resort’s show schedule for everything from magic shows, to song and dance to pop culture tributes.
Many resorts offer a full program of classes, lessons and activities, but if you’d like to get off the resort and experience a little of the local culture, it’s easy to catch the bus into town as well. For five CUCs, you can ride the hop-on-hop-off bus all day long and hit up the markets, roadside art galleries and eateries in the quaint little town of Varadero.
What to Eat
You’ve likely already read that the resort food in Cuba leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s true. Cuban food is generally bland due to the lack of availability of spices, and mass-produced resort food can be like eating at a hospital cafeteria with its vats of mushy vegetables, soggy fish fillets and wilted salads. Mitigate this by bringing a few of your own condiments and keeping them in your room’s bar fridge. Bringing snacks is also a good idea if you have specific food requirements.
The key to navigating the buffet is to stick to the fresh food stations where chefs will prepare pasta, omelets or meat for you, and supplement with some veggies and fruit. Other regular dishes include fish, chicken, beans and a salad bar. If you have food restrictions, you should be able to find plenty of options–from vegetarian food to gluten-free selections.
A la Carte Restaurants
Most resorts offer several a la carte restaurants in addition to the buffets, but you will need to make reservations in advance. Be sure to do this as soon as you can – your first or second day there – as these restaurants are popular and book up quickly. And do temper your expectations. While the a la cartes provide a different experience from the buffet, the quality of the food many not differ as much as you might hope.
There are two things you need to know about money in Cuba: which currency to use and how to use it for tipping.
Cuba has two official currencies: the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), used at all the major resorts and tourist locations, and the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is used primarily by the locals and you won’t need it unless you’re going off the beaten track.
Neither Cuban currency is traded internationally, so you’ll want to bring enough Canadian cash for your entire trip (don’t rely on ATMs or traveller’s cheques), and convert it a bit at a time while you’re there. You can do so at the airport and at your resort. Just be sure to convert it back to Canadian dollars before coming home, or else you’ll be stuck with it. If you’re staying at a resort, you won’t need a lot of cash, but you will need it for tipping, shopping and excursions.
Tipping will be an important part of your experience in Cuba. It’s not only expected, but will, to some extent, determine the level of service you receive. That’s because those serving you do depend upon it to supplement their meager wages.
You’ll want to tip everyone, from your food servers and room attendants to tour guides, baggage handlers and drivers. You don’t need to tip a lot, but do consider the length and magnitude of the service and tip accordingly. For example, leaving the equivalent of a dollar or two per day for your room cleaner is perfectly acceptable, while the bus driver who drove you safely throughout your all-day excursion might warrant the equivalent of five to 10 dollars.
When you convert your Canadian dollars into CUCs, be sure to ask for numerous small bills for tips.
What to Pack
Beyond a sweater and long pants for cooler evenings and breezy days, you don’t need a lot of heavy clothes for Cuba – the weather will be balmy any time of year – so you can save room in your bag for a few other essentials that will make your trip more comfortable. These include:
Medications: If you suffer from seasonal allergies, motion sickness, trouble sleeping or sunburns, don’t assume you’ll be able to get the over-the-counter medications you would normally buy at the drugstore. Your hotel may have a limited selection, but you’ll pay top dollar, so it’s best to plan ahead and bring what you might need.
Towels and Bedding: Don’t expect 300-thread-count sheets, even if you’re staying at a 5-star resort. If you’re picky about your bedding, bring your own. Same goes for extra beach towels; you can use what’s provided, but you will get charged extra if you misplace them.
Travel Mug: Beach bars are a dime a dozen, and unfortunately, so are the thousands of small, plastic cups served up at the all-inclusives. Do your part to reduce the waste by packing your travel mug and bringing it to the bar for refills.
Do your research carefully when choosing your accommodations. You might not normally opt for a top-of-the-line resort, but in Cuba, a 5-star rating is more like 3.5 stars elsewhere. Resorts aren’t as modern or as well equipped as they are in other popular destinations, and you may read a lot of online reviews that dissuade you. But don’t let them! Do your research carefully and thoroughly, and you will find the gems (like this one). Do temper your expectations however; this isn’t Hawaii, even though it might look like it in pictures.
Enjoy your Cuban vacation in Varadero to the fullest with these travel tips
Cuba is a tropical vacation mainstay for Canadians because it’s one of the safest, friendliest and most affordable Caribbean destinations. And if you’re looking for the best place to relax on a beautiful beach, you can rest easy knowing that Varadero’s beach has been rated among the top 10 in the Caribbean.
But before heading to Cuba, you’ll want to do a little prep to ensure you’re equipped to enjoy it to the fullest. Because although it is just as beautiful as shown in pictures, you’ll want to prepare for a few realities that come with visiting a country that has felt the effects of socialism and economic sanctions for almost 50 years. Here’s what you need to know to get the most out of your time in Varadero.
Lisa Manfield is a writer, editor and content strategist. Formerly the editor of bcliving, she has also been managing editor at Orato.com, marketing manager at TheTyee.ca, and contributing editor for a number of publications. She has developed print and online content, marketing collateral, and courseware for Canada Wide Media, UBC, CBC TV and the Knowledge Network. She also teaches Writing and Editing for the Web at SFU. Follow her on Twitter and Google+