James Gjaltema writes about travel for The Armchair Mayor News.
COLUMN — American president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro announced that the two countries will commence positive diplomatic relations. After half a century of restrictive policies and cold connections, a new era will see increased trade, travel and banking ties between the countries.
When I first went to Cuba over a decade ago, one of the compelling reasons to visit was to see it before it changes. The changes now occurring will likely spark renewed motivation to travel there before the current allure is altered. A big part of the charm and appeal is the culture and lifestyle created by the political situation.
Classic cars from the 1950s have been preserved and maintained through the years as newer imports are difficult to come by. American franchises like McDonalds and Pizza Hut are nowhere to be found. Cuba has a rich musical tradition; I was beguiled by the music of the Buena Vista Club. Cuba is also the birthplace of many popular Latin dances including the Salsa, Cha Cha, Rumba and Mambo.
The white sand beaches, palm trees and sunshine have attracted such notable personalities as Ernest Hemmingway who wrote the Old Man and the Sea while living in Cuba, and mobster Al Capone who purportedly had caches of booze on the island during prohibition.
The primary tourist destination is Varadero, a town of 20,000 located on a long narrow peninsula with amazing beaches and turquoise waters. Spanish for shipyard, Varadero was used by Spanish Galleons pursued by pirates as far back as the 1500s. The 1990’s saw tourism expand with many resorts being built. The industry has grown to over a million visitors annually.
My first visit to Cuba was also my first all-inclusive experience. This was not my normal travel style, but I soon adapted and was impressed by the value the vacation provided. It was nice being transported from the airport to the hotel and having so much available at no extra cost – burgers and beers on the beach, scuba lessons in the pool, entertainment, windsurfing, kayaks, and more.
The resort had bikes for guest use. We cycled into town to check out the local markets. I remember seeing Cubans smoking cigars and playing dominoes or chess waiting for customers to buy souvenirs such as hand-crafted wooden game sets from their stalls. You can travel around town in a 3-wheeled “pac-man” taxi or take the bus that goes up and down the peninsula.
A popular day-trip or overnight excursion is a visit to the capital, Havana. 145km West of Varadero, Havana is host to historic plazas, El Morro Castle and some excellent museums. It’s well worth the trip to get out of the touristy area and experience the Spanish colonial city of 2 million.
Cayo Santa Maria is a growing resort area with amazing beaches. Guests fly into Santa Clara and travel nearly 2 hours to the resort via a 48km causeway connecting some smaller islands. Just down the coast (but not connected by road) are the resort areas serviced by Cayo Coco airport. Further east down the island, Holguin airport services the resorts around Guardalavaca, which has phenomenal scuba diving.
If you are looking for something different than a standard packaged holiday, G-Adventures has an 8-day cycle trip that lets you explore the real Cuba for about $1100; they also have an 8-day, small group sailing trip for about $1500. For those who prefer cruising, Cuba Cruises offers a 7-night cruise which circumnavigates the whole island with several ports of call, starting at around $800 per person.
Some important notes for visiting Cuba:
• Internet access can be very limited, slow and unreliable
• Medical insurance is mandatory
• Food at many resorts in Cuba is not usually very inspiring, but cocktails like the mojito are great
• Cuba has a special tourist currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) on par with the US dollar. You cannot exchange Cuban currency outside of the country (you can do it at the airport or most hotels). Canadian cash is best, credit cards are not widely accepted and US cash is subject to a 10% fee.
• There is a departure tax of 25 CUC, make sure you put this money aside to avoid issues at the airport
James Gjaltema is a founding member of the Kamloops Travel Club and a Flight Centre Associate. He can be reached at 250-879-0873 or through his web-site: http://www.flightcentreassociates.com/jamesgjaltema.