10 Mar Hot Days & Havana Nights
Savour balmy beaches, take a step back in time in Havana or find adventure off the beaten track. Here’s our top travel tips, apps and travel kits for your Cuban adventure
By Melanie Chambers | Posted: Feb 28th, 2011
Of the 2.5 million-plus visitors a year to Cuba, Canadians account for a whopping one-third, and it’s easy to see why. Only 1,200 kilometres long, this archipelago is home to three mountain ranges, more than 200 beaches, 4,195 quays and islets and countless varieties of tropical fish. The birthplace of mambo and salsa, Cubans treat dancing and music like a religion.
Spanish, African and Caribbean ancestors make for a funky mix of architecture and food and drink, such as the refreshingly minty mojito – the only remedy for a hot island night. Cuba’s history has been tumultuous, but, intensely patriotic: advertisements on streets are replaced with slogans such as “Free the People” and “Revolution”. What this amounts to is a holiday destination that has it all: resorts, culture and adventure. Here we offer a primer for the Cuba curious.
Not all stars shine in Cuba
All-inclusive seekers beware: a three-star resort is pretty dicey. “I don’t even send students to three-star,” says Cheryl Watson, a travel consultant for Executive Travel in London, Ont. Four stars and up are your best bets for all-inclusives. Also, look for specific activities and amenities; some places include sailing, kayaking and golf, while others charge extra.
Dubbed the “city of parks,” this family-orientated vacation area is the third largest, next to Havana and Varadero. Most resorts offer Kids’ Clubs and family excursions.
Attraction: Located on the outskirts of town, Mayabe Lookout has expansive views of the valley below.
Resort: Brisas Guardalavaca is only a five-minute boat ride to Naranjo Bay, where kids can swim with dolphins in a natural aquarium.
Santiago de Cuba
With the Sierra Maestra mountains in the background, this rustic area is quiet, yet historical. The first capital of Cuba, Santiago de Cuba is where Fidel Castro claimed victory, in 1959.
Attraction: Revolutionary soldiers and members of the Bacardi family have tombs at the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia; every half-hour there is a changing of guard ceremony.
Resort: Meliá Santiago de Cuba is the only five-star in the area.
Outdoor bars serving “girlie” drinks and a plethora of beaches and resorts that party like it’s 1999 bring in more than a half-million visitors a year to this resort town.
Attraction: La Cueva de Ambrosio (Ambrosio Caves) reach a depth of 300 metres and feature 47 pre-Columbian drawings.
Resort: For couples, Sandals Royal Hicacos Resort & Spa includes everything from scuba diving to dance lessons.
A step back in time
Walking through central Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with its colonial mansions and 1950s cars, feels like a step back in time. No matter the neighbourhood, everyone dances, especially at night when sequins and heels are encouraged. But don’t come early: hips only start to shake after 10 p.m. For daytime fun that isn’t so touristy, try Vedado.
Where to stay
The Hotel Armadores de Santander is in the restored former offices of a Spanish shipbuilding company. Centrally located in Old Havana, get a room overlooking the port.
Hemingway, Churchill and Sinatra hung out at the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Live entertainment and six bars also make it a worthy destination.
Food & drink
Besides mojitos, locals enjoy Cuba libres (rum, cola and lime), and cubanitos (think a bloody mary with rum). To refuel, try Spanish ropa vieja, a delicious shredded beef served in tomato sauce.
Get off the resort and see Cuba your way
Daredevils of all levels can enjoy an adrenaline rush with activities ideally suited to Cuba’s varied landscape and warm climate. While it might be easier to tag along with a resort-arranged excursion, travelling off the beaten path lets you explore more of Cuba and check off a bucket-list adventure. You can always relax on the beach or at the bar tomorrow.
With consistent winds from January to August, surfers can hit the waves holding onto a giant kite. “Large stretches of beach in Varadero make Cuba the best in the world,” says Luis Manuel Mazorra, president of CubaSurf. Cost: $150 for a six-hour, multi-day lesson. school.cubasurf.ca
“There is no better way to see Cuba than by bike,” says Nani Reddy, a Toronto bike enthusiast who organizes bike tours to Cuba, describing scenic tours that start in Santiago de Cuba and ride along the coast. There’s no shortage of tour groups, such as CanBiCuba, which offers weeklong tours; or the granddaddy: a two-week trip across the country. If you’d rather go solo, try biking west from Havana to Maria la Gorda. Torontonian Bob Sexton found cheap bed and breakfasts – Casa Particulars – along the way. At $20/night, they had the essentials: “Some even had a pool and a bar.”casaparticularscuba.org
Be at one with the moray eels and giant puffer fish exploring some of the world’s most well-preserved ocean floors. Only problem: choosing from more than 20 major diving zones. The Bay of Pigs’ Cueva de los Pesces has an underwater tunnel system while the Jardines de la Reina is dubbed the “Galapagos of the Caribbean” for its plethora of fish. netssa.com/cuba
Note: Cuban diving centres are government run agencies, which recognize both SSI and PADI certification, but they do not offer certification courses in these qualifications, as they’re US based.
Save some dineros with Rogers Travel Packs
Voice Travel Packs
Purchase a bucket of talk minutes to use while abroad. It’s good for the month, and if you use all your minutes before coming home, don’t fret: keep talking at the same rate for the entire month. The Caribbean & Latin America (CALA) Travel Pack covers Cuba and 54 other countries from Anguilla to Venezuela Cost Starting at $25 for 15 CALA minutes ($3/min. without)
Data Travel Packs
Similar to voice travel packs except instead of buying minutes, you’re buying data for browsing the web, sending and receiving email and using web-based apps. Also like voice packs, if you require more data while abroad, keep typing: you can do so at the same rate for the rest of the calendar month. Cost Starting at $50 for a 10 MB International Data Travel Pack
International Text Messaging Travel Packs
These packs allow you to send and receive text messages while away. So you can stay in touch with family or work, or to keep in constant connection with fellow travellers. Run out of text messages? Keep sending for the rest of the month at the same per-text rate. Cost Starts at $12.50 for 25 sent messages ($18.75 without) and includes FREE unlimited incoming texts.
For more info, visit rogers.com/roaming