Cuba is the largest of the Caribbean islands and we have been fortunate to have had the chance to visit this wonderful place on many occasions. From Montreal it is a short direct flight that enabled us to be sitting on the beach in a few hours. This was especially nice after leaving the frigid temperatures of a Canadian winter!
When we travel we enjoy learning about other cultures’ traditions and day-to-day life. The Cuban people are well educated and interacting with them can be a learning experience and very rewarding. While many are not well off, they are a proud people happy to talk about their customs, heritage, and life. Everyone seems happy despite what often looks like unfavorable or poor living conditions. We would encourage exploring Cuba while it is still unspoiled and somewhat authentic. The lack of billboards publicizing fast food franchises in comparison to many of the other islands is refreshing.
Cuba’s capital Havana has its streets lined with colonial style buildings, which look to have been mansions in previous times. Many restaurants can be found as well as nighttime entertainment. Most of these places have seemingly lost their luster and the once beautiful buildings are in desperate need of repairs and renovations. A stark contrast to this is all the old cars that are still running and can be seen all over the city. Other highlights of Old Havana include Plaza de Armas, the Catedral de San Cristóbal as well as the Old Fort.
Varadero is one of the most popular destinations in Cuba and there are many resorts to choose from along the 20-km white sand beach. We’ve visited twice mostly to relax and enjoy the beautiful powdery sand beach, one of the nicest in the world. It’s a public beach and many Cubans come to enjoy it as well. Once, we were staying close to town and locals would approach us in the water to offer us cigars or langoustes (lobster). We enjoy these humorous experiences as they make our trips memorable. Varadero is also a good home base to take a day trip to Havana.
Another time we stayed in Jibacoa, which proved to be an excellent location for visiting Havana as it is located less than an hour away. Matanzas in the opposite direction is another popular site to visit. Also, our resort had a beautiful mountain backdrop and an ideal beach for snorkeling. No need to pay for an excursion, all we had to do was get in the water and ride the current along the coastline while enjoying the show.
Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo are secluded but beautiful. The warm gentle surf and the clear shallow waters make it a safe place to swim or just float around in the ocean. On one morning the water was so still it looked like a mirror, something you might expect from a mountain lake, not the ocean!
Both are great places for snorkeling. When we visited Cayo Coco there was only one resort at the end of a 17-km causeway across the ocean, there are many now and Cayo Guillermo is close by and has similar tranquil waters. While staying in Cayo Coco we took a snorkeling excursion, went to ‘Jurassic Island’ and then to a deserted island where we found seahearts on the shore. This was a nice memento to find while on our honeymoon!
From Cayo Coco we took an excursion to Trinidad across the island. It turned out to be well worth missing out on a day at the beach to visit this lovely city. The colonial architecture of the houses, churches and plaza only enhanced its charm. We flew in an old plane probably dating back to the Second World War. The view from the open window at the back of the plane was amazing. Meanwhile, my husband was given a chance to co-pilot and was sitting in the cockpit flying the plane under the watchful eye of the pilot.
The beach was beautiful on our first day in Cayo Largo. However, there was a storm at night and in the morning the beach had been washed away and algae and seaweed was left behind on the remnants of the beach. Eventually, tourists were cleaning it up because there were only a couple of guys with a very small rake trying to pick it all up. And yes, while not highly advertised Cayo Largo seems to attract a lot of nudists. If nudity makes you uncomfortable or you want to shelter your kids from it don’t go there or stick to the side of the beach near the hotels.
Other places we visited in Cuba were: Santiago de Cuba, Holguin and Cayo Santa Maria. Our resort in Santiago de Cuba was perched high up on a cliff and we had to hike down to get to what was at the time an algae infested beach. This was definitely an unwelcome surprise, making this our least favorite spot in Cuba. In Holguin we were staying at a huge resort and our room wasn’t well situated and we had a 20 minutes walk to the beach, the pool or the restaurants. I guess it was good exercise to counteract the buffet, but we now try and look and ask for rooms closer to the amenities or check if there is a shuttle. Here again, the beach was full of algae making it unpleasant. Cayo Santa Maria was nice. It is often risky for weather at that time of the year in Cuba. During our visit in January as luck would have it we had cold weather. Too cold to swim, we even had to wear jackets on the beach!
You don’t go to Cuba’s resorts for gastronomy, everywhere we stayed the food was mediocre at best. We suspect this is simply the availability of fresh produce. On many occasions we’ve seen canned fruits at the buffets while fruit trees are visible all around you. When we inquired about that we were told that they export almost all of their fresh produce for profit. Many of the hotels also lack amenities to handle the busiest seasons, and it’s not uncommon to run out of beach chairs or beach towels. Usually it’s a good idea to bring your own towel to avoid disappointment. Also, do your research and pick a newer resort because older ones are usually in need of repairs. Once, our third story balcony railing wasn’t solid and looked like it was ready to break off. It seems that rather than renovate and fix hotels, the older resorts simply get abandoned and new ones are built instead. While some of this may sounds bad, Cuba is still a great place to visit we are simply trying to set expectations.