If you didn’t know, I went to Cuba last week! I spent 7 almost blissful days soaking in the sun, walking along the sandy beaches and swimming in the warm sea. Despite some of the drawbacks (which you can read about here), I did enjoy my time away from Calgary. Having been to Cuba before, I definitely considered myself a “seasoned” all-inclusive person, but my time in Varadero was very different. In 3 years things change and Varadero was very different from Cayo Coco. I wouldn’t say that I had a terrible time, but I think I had higher expectations because of my previous experience. A big part of the problem was due in part to the hotel we were staying at. Despite its purported 4-star rating, we encountered a few problems, primarily with food and customer service.
Below is a detailed guide on Things to Do in Varadero, based on my experiences and from anecdotes of other fellow travelers. Even though my experience was vastly different from my time in Cayo Coco, I am still very happy I was able to go on vacation and enjoy my time on the beach. Cuba is a beautiful country but I do feel that it has a long way to go when it comes to first class tourism that runs smoothly without a hitch. If you’re planning your next vacation to Cuba, hopefully, my tips help!
We stayed at Melia Las Antillas a 4-star hotel situated farther up Varadero on a beautiful coastline of water. The cost of the all-inclusive was affordable and we read multiple reviews prior to choosing this hotel. Many people enjoyed the hotel and raved about the service. The hotel is also adults-only which was a big drawing factor for many guests – but wasn’t too important to us.
1) If you want to drink excessively and all you care about are the drinks go to this hotel
2) If you don’t really drink and you can put up with mediocre to dismal customer service & food but want access to an awesome beach go to this hotel
3) If you want to try and get the best of both worlds, you’re better off trying another hotel like Melia Las Americas which many have told me is the better hotel! I suggest you go with option 3.
It is a well-known fact that food on the resorts in Cuba is not going to be tasty. In Cayo Coco this was true but I still managed to eat pretty well, mainly at lunchtime when the pizza shack was open (Best. Pizza. Ever). I didn’t think it would be any different in Varadero, but the food at our hotel was quite bad. A lot of the food was cold (leftovers from other days), and while I am all for food frugality, cold and soggy food is just unappetizing. Also, many of the food items were either incorrectly labeled, not labeled at all or labeled in Spanish.
If you have dietary restrictions, navigating the buffet and food on the resort can be tricky. A lot of the time something would be labeled as vegetarian but have seafood in it. Or it would be cooked in lard. We often saw a lot of cross-contamination of utensils. Again, if you don’t have restrictions or you are not picky this isn’t a problem. However, as Muslims, we really struggled, even when I spoke Spanish it was hard to express what I wanted. Now one might say “You shouldn’t expect special accommodation at these places.” And I definitely wasn’t. But at the same time, I wasn’t going to eat the mystery meat, and the vegetarian options were still cross-contaminated with meat. Needless to say, we struggled.
If you are vegetarian but don’t mind cross-contamination, the buffet is your best choice. The eggs and pasta are tasty and the pizza and grilled seafood works too. If you are Muslim, stick to the boiled eggs, bread and fried items like fries and hashbrowns for breakfast. For lunch and dinner stick to the grilled seafood. If you want pasta, you can certainly ask them to use a brand new plate and utensil to cook the items. Or get there right when the buffet opens so that nothing has been used as yet.
For Muslims and vegetarians, remember to stay away from the fried beans and Cuban rice, both items contain lard. As for Spanish words that will be important, you will want to remember the following:
Resort life is pretty monotonous but the whole point is to really just sit and relax, right? Depending on what your interests are, most resorts have something for everyone. I liked that Melia Las Antillas had an amazing beach with a good amount of chairs and umbrellas available. At night there was a series of entertainment shows featuring the same dance troop, and they also had live music.
Other activities include:
We took a catamaran excursion and a day trip to Havana. Both were definitely very different from what I experienced while in Cayo Coco. I found that this time around in Varadero, it was quite pricey for what you were getting.
The catamaran trip was purchased on the plane while going to Cuba at $125.00 per person. The trip is booked when you land. The catamaran is much bigger than the one I had in Cayo Coco. As such, we were a larger group (45 people compared to 20), and I personally did not like that for two reasons. First being that there wasn’t enough sitting space on the boat especially when people with children brought strollers. Second, when we were snorkeling there were too many people and not enough space to swim.
Speaking of snorkeling, we stopped in a rough part of the sea with very strong currents. A lot of the passengers brought their own snorkeling gear including flippers which meant that in addition to trying to swim against the strong current, you had flippers hitting you in the face. The snorkeling lasted 10-15 minutes and you could not see a thing because a) you were trying to keep afloat and protect your face from being hit and b) the water was murky and there were only a few schools of dull, brown looking fish.
From there we were herded off to a dolphinarium. Or rather, a large cement enclosure in the middle of the sea that housed 8 dolphins. We got into the water with the dolphins and they performed tricks for us. In the end, we took a photo with dolphin that was available at our hotel for 10 CUC. For an extra “donation” (10 CUC or more), you could hold onto the fin of the dolphin and it dragged you along. The experience was so surreal (we were basically in a dolphin prison) and I felt bad for them, but at the same time, it was kinda cool and unexpected!
Afterward, we were taken to Cayo Blanco where we were supposed to enjoy a traditional Cuban feast. I was under the assumption, much like in Cayo Coco, the food would be prepared on the ship and served. In Cayo Coco, I had the most delicious lobster, shrimp, and rice. Unfortunately, we were taken to Cayo Blanco where there were a hundred other people all in line for a buffet of the same food we get at our resort. I did try the lobster and it was unfortunately very rubbery. I did, however, really enjoy swimming at the Cayo. The beach was very beautiful.
As for the day trip to Havana, that was the most expensive part of our trip. Our cab ride alone cost $300 CAD and then we paid around $120 CAD for lunch. If you’re splitting the cost it’s cheap but if you’re paying as a family or if you’d rather everything is planned out for you, I recommend booking a day excursion through the hotel. To read more about what to do in Havana, you can click here.
You can find souvenirs for a cheaper price off the resort in the town of Varadero or Havana. Or you can purchase them on the resort (which is convenient). The only thing you are unable to purchase at the resort are Cuban cigars. You will have resort employees coming to you and letting you know that they deal cigars on the side and they will give you a “good price”. It isn’t recommended to go through these “alternative dealers.” But I would leave it at your discretion or recommend you wait to buy it at a reputable dealer in town or at the airport.
Speaking of which, DO NOT buy your souvenirs at the airport. The prices are incredibly inflated (6 CUC for a small keychain vs. 1 CUC) and the selection isn’t that great. If you forgot something and must really buy a gift at the last minute than the airport is a good option but beware of the prices.
Cuban time is a thing. Much like other ethnicities around the world, time is an aloof concept. Only in North America do we pride ourselves on punctuality. If the bus is supposed to come at 8:15 it may come 30 minutes later or even 30 minutes earlier! We lucked out with the former, but as we were leaving to the airport, the bus arrived super early at the other resorts which were quite a pain for the tourists (who assumed the bus was coming later).
You are basically paying a pretty affordable price for a 7-day all-inclusive vacation, so remember to keep your expectations low! If you want 5-star luxury service you’ll have to seek it elsewhere. Cuban resorts are primarily known for their drinks and beaches, so take advantage of that!
You no longer need to pay the departure tax fee at the airport. This is very convenient. You can also exchange your CUC’s back to CAD at the airport. If you’re looking to exchange CAD to CUC, you can easily do it at the resort (where they charge a higher price plus 3% commission fee), or go off the resort to a bank in town. When I was in Cuba 3 years ago, they would easily take CAD or USD for souvenirs at the same price if you did not have CUC, however, in Varadero I found they preferred CUC and would charge extra if you only had CAD or CUC.
You are only allowed to take two bottles or rum, 1 pound of coffee and 50 cigars back to your country. All these items must be placed in your checked in bag and not your carry on.
Remember to bring TONS of sunscreen. I recommend 2 bottles per person. The sun is hot, and oftentimes your body is exposed as there is not enough shade. Skin cancer isn’t worth a “glowing tan.” Plus it’s better to bring extra rather than less, and risk spending $40 CAD for a new bottle. I also recommend bringing bug spray because the mosquitos come out at night.
Finally, prior to traveling to Cuba, ensure that you receive the proper vaccinations and medication. E-coli is prevalent especially due to poor food handling and our own sensitive stomachs. Despite the hassle, taking Dukoral was the best decision we made, especially when we were eating the undercooked burgers LOL.
Overall Cuba is an incredibly beautiful country with lot’s to offer. Unfortunately, due to many reasons, it is not yet at the top of the list when it comes to luxury or comfort travel. Nevertheless, Cuba’s all-inclusive packages provide a decent amount of things to do for an affordable price. The only downside to my travels in Varadero (aside from the customer service at the hotel) is the fact that opting to do things outside of the hotel was very pricey. Especially as a family. I think it’s easier and more affordable if you go as a group of friends and can then split the prices.
Despite my desire to explore the “off beaten path” of Havana, for the sake of ease, convenience, safety, and affordability, I believe I was better of choosing an excursion package to Havana rather than doing it alone. In the end, my time in Varadero was quite the adventure. I certainly loved soaking every minute of the sun and enjoying the fresh Caribbean breeze. While everyone was at work, I was on the beach sipping a mojito – so, in the end, it was pretty perfect! 🙂