It was a freeing if sometimes frustrating exercise, and while I marginally regret not having captured some personal experiences "on film" (digitally), overall I am glad I left my screen addiction behind in Canada that week. After all, for nearly a decade, my mother traveled to Cuba every year, long before Smartphones and personal computers, and survived every time to tell the tale, so I figured we could, too, and we did!
It was delightful to witness the boys processing their first impressions of Cuba, and make connections to other Latin American countries they have visited... it wasn't long after we stepped off the plan in Varadero that they began reminiscing about Argentina; certainly the climate felt similar to Buenos Aires, the palm trees, warm, humid air... and the fact that the officials all spoke Spanish and the announcements over the loudspeakers were in Spanish, too!
The Varadero Airport is considerably bigger (and more touristy) than the smaller one my mother, grandmother and I landed at years ago on the other side of the island, and while I felt a bit inauthentic introducing my kids to Cuba in this fashion, I knew that the rest and relaxation of the tourist resort would form only part of the trip (more on that later), so I forgave myself!
We boarded a bus along with several other tourists eager to get whichever destination they had booked from a number of resorts along the Varadero strip and -- after a bit of a delay due to a fellow passenger who succumbed to the temptation of the overpriced airport carts and bought a cigar and a cerveza -- we were off to the hotels.
Playa de Oro
Our own destination was Playa de Oro and -- while dated -- it was nevertheless larger than any resort I'd been to before: Two large, multi-floor hotel buildings flanked a giant pool with a walking path/bridge, several bars and small restaurants dotted the property, and the main lobby building featured an enormous dining room with buffet, a health centre and stage.
One of our intended highlights was an overnight trip to Havana. I had never been there before, but I knew it was an important cultural hub to introduce my children to, and since AirBnB had very recently become legal in Havana, I booked a Casa Particulares through that familiar platform before leaving Toronto and took my printed out confirmation along with a Lonely Planet guidebook that featured a whole section on the capital, and included a pull-out map!
The plan was to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, walk along the Malecon, and just generally take in the atmosphere of this incredible city of 3 million people. I had also intended to check out Hemingway's house, but that was not to be, as it was located too far on the outskirts, and our time in the city was simply too short.
The first step was getting there. On a cash budget and wanting to put more money into the hands of locals and less into the already overflowing coffers of the tour agency, I booked one-way transfers on a bus, through the hotel. My lonely planet guide suggested I could hire a local car once in Havana to take us back.
The trouble was that I actually had no idea where we were going, and of course, no way of contacting the Host, what with being internet- and device-free for the week! I came to this realization about two thirds of the way to the city, and started hurridly and more than a little panic scouring the fold-out map in my Lonely Planet guide... Irritatingly, the Veijo map seemed to end where the Centro map began, without overlap at precisely the spot I needed.
So we trusted our luck with a taxi outside of the museum (well, first we had to argue with a driver who saw a helpless woman with her tourist map, two kids and a lost look on her face; I soon ditched that guy and used my pathetically limited Spanish to charm my way into a half-the-price-but-according-to-my-guidebook-still too-much ride in another car, and thus we experienced our first of several short rides in the world famous and ubiquitous antique Cuban cars!)
After our bite to eat, we wandered the streets and took in the ambiance, which was thick with art, music and culture, despite the pervading drizzle.
Havana, like most of Cuba, has relatively few cars, given its population. Most of the cars on the road look like they belong in a 1950s mobster movie... at least from the outside. The other ubiquitous make and model is the Soviet-era Lada. A few European and other "modern" motorized vehicles are starting to find their way onto the island, but these are well beyond the financial possibility of the average Cuban. Many walk or bike, and those who do own cars have become adept at creatively maintaining their vintage models!
In addition to cars, a number of covered bike- and moped-taxis serve smaller groups of tourists. Collectivo taxis offer a sort of Cuban "Uber Pool" solution, with many locals heading in roughly the same direction cramming into a larger car.
As in Varadaro, there is a "public" bus for tourists (5 CUC, about $7 CAD), and then there is the really public bus, which tourists do not use, which one pays for in local pesos unobtainable to tourists, at a rate of about 10 cents a person, and which we totally rode, I having wisely brought a few toys and some hard-to-get decent chocolate with me from Canada (in Cuba, it is not uncommon to see a local bus driver with his kid on his lap, and this was the case with the driver who's bus we happened on, and so I supplemented my offering of pesos with said Canadian chocolate and everyone was happy).
Two long-haired blond boys stood out like sore thumbs on the bus, and the locals looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and mild annoyance, but we took it in stride, and rode for as long as I dared, keeping one eye on the window to assess the surroundings, and the other eye on my guide book map, as I did not have a bus route map, and knew therefore that wherever we went, we'd either have to walk back or use some of our dwindling funds for a taxi.
It was such a non-issue, just a matter-of-fact occurance; the baby was heavy, the old lady wasn't giving up her seat, but she was taking the baby so the mom didn't have to balance the kid on her hip throughout the jostling bus ride. Amazing!
Then there was Copelia, the ice cream parlour named after the ballet. Our Casa was about a 25 minute walk from the park, and we visited (though, too shy to join the local line, we went obediently as directed by the park guards to the tourist counter).
The hotel also boasts an impressive. star-studded, international guest list, and we got to soak up a little of this history thanks to our knowledgeable and detail-oriented tour guide.
Simon, who had been somewhat cranky due to the lousy weather (it was raining when we arrived in Havana, which curbed our ability to walk everywhere) and a canker sore in his mouth, insisted we go snorkeling. He had never gone, and decided we needed to go.
I had planned out our finances quite carefully, but had not considered connecting the snorkeling adventures to the Havana trip. In the end, however, doing just that seemed like the most feasible way to ensure we squeezed some off-resort snorkeling into our week-long trip, and so, at Simon's insistence and with a little negotiation on the part of our Casa host's father with the driver, we managed to combine our drive "home" (to Varadero) with a stop at an out-of-the-way little spot I had read about, regardless of the fact that we had not brought bathing suits with us to Havana.
While our driver and I enjoyed non-alcoholic piña coladas and played with the mangy beach dogs wandering around the bar, Alex and Simon stripped down to their underwear, put on the battered old life jackets the guide handed them, and set out to experience their first ever snorkeling adventure, led by a young man who showed me photos of his own children as well as his snorkeling guide license to assure me my kids were in good hands.
Asked later how they liked it, Alex dreamily responded, "it was magic"!
After our return from Havana, the overcast skies continued to plague our beach holiday, so we determined to travel off the resort strip, and into the little tourist town of Varadero for the morning. We packed some snacks and water, as well as a few tradeable items, just in case, and wandered out to the main road to wait for the $5 tourist bus.
It wasn't long until the local bus, headed into town to pick up a larger group, pulled over and offered us a ride for less than it would have cost us for all three on the "proper" bus. After some haggling, we negotiated an even better price, and the boys and I got onto the bus, celebrating our unexpected luck at finding this better deal. (In the end, we didn't pay a dime for our ride, as it turned out the driver had grandkids, and happily accepted our offer of toys and chocolate in lieu of cash!)
After hanging our with some freely wandering chickens in the main square, we walked across a bridge into an industrial part of town. It was sweltering, so we soon headed back to the tourist zone, and ended up on a secluded part of the beach, where we buried our water and bags in the cool sand, and stripped down for another underwear swim in the ocean (albeit this time sans snorkel gear)!
The boys wanted to ride what Simon called a "helmet cab", so after drying off while walking along the beach a little, we hitched a ride for a few blocks in one of the so-called "coco cabs", again trading hard-to-come-by-in-Cuba goods for services.
All in all, I found our day trip to Varadero less eventful than our Havana adventure, but I am nevertheless glad we got to see the town.
As is often the case in Cuban resorts, you go for the sunshine, the sandy beaches, the ocean... not so much for the food! Playa de Oro is no exception. The buffet was repetitive but manageable; we'd brought our own syrup, ketchup and peanut butter. Bringing our own teabags turned out to have been a wise idea, too! Black pepper was frequently in short supply as was any kind of decent salad dressing, but we did not starve.
The pasta bar was a hit with the kids (we learned to line up early for dinner to avoid long waits later on), and there were three a-la-cart restaurants, where one was served a variation of the food available at the buffet. We made reservations at the Cuban beach cafe and also ate at the pool-side Italian restaurant one night, where we were given what I thought were fancy virgin drinks, but which turned out to be alcoholic beverages, which I did not discover until the boys had already taken two generous swigs. (The end of that story is that after refraining from imbibing for nearly the whole week, I found myself drinking THREE drinks in one sitting!!!)
Our room, while fairly comfortable, was average at best; the bathroom smelled of mildew, and the towels were rarely changed (though upon leaving a tip for the cleaner, we came back to our room to find the old towels had been creatively fashioned into swans and sea monsters).
The resort's main attraction was of course the beach. The ocean was amazingly warm, and so many shades of blue and green (such different shades than in PEI, I marveled!) Alex commented that he finally understood how some people could just sit around on the beach all day, which is exactly what we did on two or three of the days... coming early, I would tip the beach guy to wipe down and reserve a spot for us, and then we'd leave a few items on our lounge chairs, and he would look after them if we went up to the buffet for lunch or whatever.
For those of us lucky enough to be tourists on vacation, it was a little piece of paradise.
As we found out while wandering about on one of our final days in Cuba, our resort was located right next door to a delfinario. We saw and heard the beautiful creatures swimming in the lagoon while we were out walking one evening (the delfinario keeps its dolphins in what is called "semi-captivity"), and decided on our last day to go and catch a show.
Still To Do...
Cuba is changing rapidly. With the Americans arriving on the scene, the economy and culture is already shifting. I am eager to visit again while some of the "old Cuba" is still preserved. Next time I would bring some dog and cat treats (for all the strays) and add black pepper to my arsenal of home comforts. I also want to visit Habana Veijo, which I did not get a chance to do. And I will definitely catch the Buena Vista Social Club show the next time I go.
Sitting here in my Apt in Toronto on an unseasonably cold, rainy, miserably May evening, I think back fondly to our short by poignant week in warm, sunny Cuba this past January. I am hopeful of a return visit sometime in the not too distant future!