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Vacation in Cuba 2012

Cuba has always been on my “to-do” list and I was hoping to get there before it gets too “americanized”. I wanted to go while the Cuban version of communism is still around. Besides, it is one of the major vacation spots for Canadians with plenty of good deals all year round. Cuba turned out to be a country “frozen in time”. I would say to me it looked like the Soviet Union some 40 years ago.

We initially wanted to go to Varadero (awesome beaches) and visit the city of Havana, but it was supposed to be raining the whole week, so we picked Santiago de Cuba instead.

We got a good 7-day all-inclusive deal on selloffvacations.com for “Club Amigo Carisol los Corales“. As usual, the internet reviews were all over the place. Some people loved it, some totally hated it. Most complaints were about the food and the beach. Kind of a big deal. We figured, it all depends on your expectations and keeping ours pretty low, decided to give it a shot.

US dollar is no good in Cuba so we brought Canadian money, which we exchanged at the resort at a 1:1 rate for “chavitos” (Cuban convertible currency). We knew how poor and destitute the Cubans were with even the very necessities not accessible to them. We brought with us all kinds of stuff that were going to give away such as toiletries, t-shirts, stationery, snacks, candy, etc even an old camera. We also brought some canned fish for us just in case, as we heard the food at the resort wasn’t the best. A friend of mine from Toronto told me scary tales about all food being confiscated at the airport on arrival and dumped into huge bins right by the customs, but we took our chances and of course there weren’t any bins and nobody cared about our food. We were also told to be generous to locals and tip everywhere so we were prepared.

Tipping started right after we picked up our bag at the airport and wheeled it to the bus. There was a bunch of locals near the bus and one of them just grabbed our bag and threw it into the luggage bay. He turned around and the sign he was holding read – “Please tip”. I gave him a dollar. No, no, he said, two dollars. And grabbed another loonie from my hand. That was a good start.

Transfer from the airport was uneventful, except a couple of young men on the bus were too concerned if they were gonna have enough time for a beer before the bar closes, and whose Spanish was limited to the annoying “una cerveza por favor”, which was pretty unfunny. We checked in, the room was great, clean, working fridge, free safety box, AC, TV with CNN, CTV, ESPN and a couple of local channels, the only problem was a shower head, but we got used to it.

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View from our room

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The beach featuring a Canadian flag. All that non-motorized boats are free to use

The beach was pretty average, very shallow, good enough for snorkeling and really bad for swimming. With this much seaweed, the water felt like hot broth. We had our watershoes and were very happy we took them. We’ve seen a lot of crabs of all sizes, sea urchins and some fish. The weather was perfect during the whole week, even too hot and not a drop of rain.

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Our beach “pets”

There was one computer with internet access (a one-hour internet card was 6 CUC, not cheap). Internet was very slow, but not dead slow. It took about 5 min to check email. Food at the resort was average, almost no variety but edible, we usually don’t care much about food so we were fine. We don’t drink, so we couldn’t care less about bars. When we travel to places where we´re not sure about drinking water, we only drink bottled water and tea, besides, other people told us most of the juices at the resorts get watered and I doubt they’d used boiled water for that, so we didn’t drink any of those “juices” either. That’s probably one of the reasons we didn’t get any stomach problems while we were there.

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A little geico found in our room

As I mentioned we were aware how poor the people in Cuba are and were prepared to give money, clothes and food left and right. Before the trip we had read that most of the Cubans are “wonderful people” and we should “give generously” as “they will appreciate anything you give them” and we did give generously, but we also found the more we gave to some of them, the more they asked for. My advise would be do give generously but don’t let them take advantage of your generosity.

On the first day we took a complimentary trip to Santiago de Cuba. As soon as we got off the bus at town square, we immediately got “picked up” by a young man named Robert.

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Strets of Santiago de Cuba

Robert said he would be happy to give us a tour of the city. When I asked about his fees, he said he was doing it as a gift because he liked us and wanted us to get to know his country better 🙂 We didn’t believe him for some reason. We thought, well, we’d give him money and gifts for his kids anyway. We spent about 2.5 hours walking through some slums, “real Cuba” as he said, a few gift shops, tobacco factory and in the end he brought us to an expensive restaurant (the food was good though). I offered him 10 CUC (somebody on tripadvisor said the guides normally do that for 2.50 CUC…, must have been a joke) and something for his daughter, but he said it was way too little and asked for 20, so we had to give him 20. Robert then took off (didn’t even bother taking us back where we were supposed to get back on the bus). $20 is not a lot, but still we were left with a bad aftertaste.

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This is Robert

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Most cars were old Soviet or pre-embargo American. The windows on Cuban houses rarely have any glass in them. Local men sit on the porch, outside of their shacks all day long doing nothing. We were told if they were working, they’d only be making $20 per month or so, so there’s no point in working. Robert took us to an electronics and home appliance store, the prices there were North American. Of course, people wouldn’t be able to afford an air conditioner or even a fridge. To Robert’s discontent, we didn’t buy anything at a liquor or souvenir stores, only a few Cohiba cigars at a cigar factory.

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Town square where we were supposed to board our bus back to the resort

One day we went on a horseback riding trip up in the mountains with one of the locals. We don’t really enjoy horseback riding but still decided to support them this way.

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This shack is where our guide lives with his wife and daughter. No air conditioner, no fridge and no electricity.

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This little piglet was screaming his lungs out, probably got lifted off the ground for the first time in his life

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On our way to the mountains, we had to stop at some village as our guide needed to get water. There was a family of four living in a shack, we gave them some detergent, notebooks, pens and pencils for the children. Then we saw that poor dog looking extremely skinny and malnourished, it was really painful to watch. We had a pack of crackers, I opened it up and gave a few crackers to the dog. All of a sudden the people around went silent. I turned around and saw that look on the child’s face, you often see that on TV charity ads, the look of a hungry child, only this time it wasn’t TV. It gave me chills, I can only imagine what they were thinking while watching me feed crackers to the dog. We left all the food we had with them.

On one of the days we walked to the aquarium to see the dolphin show (about 30 min walk from the hotel). We didn’t swim with the dolphins but got to pet a couple of them and that was fun

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We also walked to the lake with the so called “crocodile farm” on an extremely hot day. The “farm” consists of five poor creatures kept in dry concrete wells with a shallow puddle in the middle and water pouring on them from a hose. We didn’t spend too much time there, watching animals being tortured is the worst torture for us.

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The lake

Another local took us to La Gran Piedra in a pre-historic truck and we almost died from exhaust fumes

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View from La Gran Piedra

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At the resort

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The rest of the time we were just relaxing on the beach

Next time we’ll probably go to Varadero and La Havana. I’ve read reviews from people who drove around Cuba in a rental car, that would be fun to do as well.

The End

February 2012

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