Cuban gems

Am I glad I visited Cuba three years ago, while Fidel Castro was still alive? YES!!! But, would I like to visit it again? Oh, yes!! Cuba is a beautiful country, Castro or no Castro. And now, with his death constantly in the media, it brings all the memories.

Bozo and I traveled to Cuba in June 2013. It was very hot and humid, but sunny most of the time, with little or no rain. It rained only on our last day in Havana, so it was much easier for us to go back home. Cuba kinda sticks with you….

We traveled from Zagreb, via Munich to Varadero with Condor Airlines, but were going back from Havana. It was cheaper that way, though my plan at first was to do it reverse. It would be much easier to do all the sightseeing first, especially in that heat and then relax at the beach.

So, our first destination was Varadero, a small tourist town, precisely hotel Melia Las Americas.

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It is a very nice, 5* all-inclusive hotel, right on the beach with great facilities and a golf course. I found a good deal online and we decided to go all inclusive, for the first time. It meant we could eat and drink all we wanted, as much as we wanted, 24 hours a day. Not just in the buffet, but also in all of the a la carte restaurants. Each night we picked different option, so we tried the Japanese, Italian, French and of course, Cuban cuisine. And we drank a lot of Pina Coladas 🙂

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The evening entertainment was also included and was really good, especially the nights when a Cuban lady with an amazing voice, sang in the bar. We fell in love with her voice and performances and went to listen to her every night, as some groupies…The energy and the strength of her voice were hypnotizing. And some rum helped 😉 She mostly sang in Spanish which was a big plus also. On our 3rd night she approached us, she must had noticed we are “regulars”, although we kept ourselves in the back drinking cocktails and enjoying that wonderful voice. We talked a little, even bought her CD.

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The highlight of each performance was the duet with a fellow colleague, singing some, obviously famous, revolutionary song, a cappella. I didn’t witness their revolution and knew a little about it back then, but would get chills with every single word.  Just three years ago, Cuba was all about their revolution, it was not possible to miss it, although 50+ years passed actually. Fidel was still alive and he was “in the air” somehow. We all heard how great their health care and education system were, but every day that I spent in Cuba my mind changed a bit … that romantic perception of revolution and Che Guevara were becoming less and less appealing.

We truly relaxed in Melia Las Americas. I got up early every morning and went walking along the beach, and through the golf course. I am not a golfer, but at that beautiful place I wished I was. I spoke with gardeners and cleaning ladies, it was so cute how they appreciated my effort to speak a bit of Spanish with them.  And all the gardens were amazingly taken care of, so I mostly praised them.

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When they asked me where I was from, after trying to explain where Croatia was, I figured it out that it was much easier to just say “ex Yugoslavia”. And most of them heard about it, some even mentioned Tito. I often sat at our balcony, which was high up in a main building of the hotel and enjoyed the view.

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I heard and read a lot about Varadero before our trip and didn’t expect the beach and surroundings would be so beautiful. I thought it would be much more crowded and less clean. Maybe I just chose the right hotel and it was still not the high season.  After my walk, Bozo would meet me for breakfast and afterwards we would hit the beach and the pool. The loungers were great, at some even iced champagne was served. Anyhow, we were just a few steps from the bar 🙂

Near the hotel, just short walk away, was a shopping mall, if we could even call it that. But it was fun to see how a mall looks like in Cuba.

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Since I get bored easily with lying on the beach and drinking cocktails, I decided to split that calm part of our vacation, and after a few days we moved to another hotel. It was also in Varadero, but further up the peninsula. Hicacos peninsula is a 20km long, and just 1km wide, with amazing beaches all the way. Most people would hate moving in the middle of their vacation, but I love trying different things, which includes different hotels as well 🙂 Bozo got used to that crazy rhythm of mine, so nowadays he doesn’t even try to change my mind. Besides, I usually choose the best for last 😉

We moved to a really nice and laid back hotel, called conveniently Sandals Royal Hicacos (it is not Sandals any more, but Royal Hicacos Resort & Spa). Maybe the price was acceptable due to the fact it’d change the ownership soon after our visit. But back then it was Sandals, so the service was on a high level. The hotel was made of two or three storey buildings with nice balconies, some of them having the pool just in front of it. Ours was like that, with a pool in front, which was cute and convenient. I wrote to the hotel upfront asking for that building, if possible.

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And yes, we were accommodated according to our wishes. It was a nice gesture, but the better hotel the better service is provided, in most cases. So, yes, try to phone or email the hotel before your arrival and if you have some specific wish (if it is not totally unrealistic) attentive hotel management will try to accomplish it. That is what I have learned over time 😉

It was a bit older hotel and in a need of refurbishment, but we didn’t mind. The food was of a high quality and the alcohol was strong, not water downed. The pools were clean, many loungers were provided and the beach had a lot of shade. And a beach bar, with a waiter service 🙂

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I know, I mention alcohol a lot in this post, even I barely drink any at home, but while on all inclusive holiday it’s just all around you. Also it was an adults only resort, which we prefer, but often cannot afford it. The guests were mostly British, so we talked a lot with other guests in the evening while enjoying the shows under the open sky.

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There were also many a la carte restaurants besides the buffet, and my favorite was the one on the beach, perfect for dinners with a view while the sun sets. And its name was perfect “El Viejo y el Mar”, the first touch of Hemingway 🙂

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Bozo says that he ate best pancakes of his life in Sandals Royal Hicacos. Every morning during the breakfast he went and talked with the man who made fresh pancakes and waffles and that kind, Cuban man would make him some ”specialties”. I imagine Bozo tipped him well heheh

At that point I really liked Cubans, the locals. They were kind, smiling and warm people. They were not well off, but you could never sense any jealousy in them. We tipped most of them, the maids, the waiters and other hotel staff. I don’t think we ever tipped so many people before or afterwards 🙂 We just liked them a lot and wanted to show our gratitude. We sympathized with them and they liked us, too. Maybe we could just understand them better, living in the communist society earlier.

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I wanted to see more of “a real Cuba”, so I persuaded Bozo we should take a one day bus tour, covering three cities, Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. We didn’t have the time to visit them separately and I couldn’t choose just one. Boy, that was a looong day and Bozo was quite mad with me. Even now, when we talk about Cuba he mentions how exhaustive that trip was. But, it was so interesting, fascinating and exciting. Even with the two worst toilets I have ever used in my life, and almost 100% humidly down in Trinidad, it was totally worth it.

If you visit Cuba try to visit Santa Clara, since it’s the heart and soul of the Revolution. It is a place where Ernesto Che Guevara is buried, at the mausoleum. He orchestrated the fall of the city in late 1958, by derailing an armored train carrying many troops and weapons sent by Batista. That victory signaled the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and Batista fled the country the next day.

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People can have a different option on that, and the course the country took afterwards, but it is a historic place and I found it very interesting, especially hearing all the stories about it. It motivated me to read some books about “Che”. His name and his face were so present in Cuba everywhere I really became interested 🙂

After that history lesson we were headed for Trinidad, the southernmost city we visited while on Cuba. That’s why I wish to travel to south of Cuba next time, but only, and only in the winter, due to unbelievable humidity we experienced there. The drive was pleasant, we passed through the nature park reserve Topes de Collantes, with its amazing trees, all green and bushy, rivers and great views. When we finally reached Trinidad and left our acclimatized bus Bozo was sweating all the time, ALL THE TIME. We could hardly eat, I ate only fruit during lunch and drank liters and liters of water. At one point, we asked for some ice to put on our necks and foreheads. It was very hard to go sightseeing like that.

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It is a beautiful colonial town, with amazing facades and cute streets, worth visiting for a day or even two. We visited a few old colonial villas, now serving as museums, such as Museo Romantico and Museo Historico, that display wealth of its former owners. My favorite was the church with a park on the Plaza Mayor. When thinking of Cuba, before that first visit, I would have imagined it just like Trinidad. People sitting outside, using old cars or even horses, donkey and carriages, all bars and restaurants with live local music.

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It’s a Cuban gem, also being a Unesco World Heritage Site. If you are a fan of photography Trinidad is not to be missed.

The last city we visited that day was Cienfuegos. I didn’t have any expectations and didn’t know much about it, but I liked it a lot. The temperature was much more pleasant here, at the bay, so we could walk much more, realizing why they call it “Pearl of the South”. It was elegant, clean, with French spirit and nice promenades.

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We sat and drank Cuban beer Cristal, that was a gift from heaven in that heat.  The bar in the city center was across the main park with the statue of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero from 19th century, the symbol of Cuban independence from Spain.

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The sun was about to set soon and it was a perfect end of a great day. If only we didn’t have to drive for three more hours, all the way to Varadero. But, the next day we could just relax, swim and snorkel and enjoy that magnificent beach. 🙂

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Before we leave for Havana, where the real sightseeing awaited. I was excited…

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