Your Ultimate Guide to Havana-Varadero Vacation 2022
Cuba is a country of blends.
It blends the old and the new within each city to charm you with its beauty and ingenuity. It blends Latin, African, and Soviet-Socialist cultures to create a vibrant Cuban culture. It combines exploration of the busy cities with adventures in the green countryside. And, don’t forget the warm sands of the Varadero peninsula stretching for miles and miles.
Cuba is a blend to enjoy.
In this blog, we share our experience in Cuba, hoping it will inspire you to visit this beautiful country.
Getting to Cuba from Canada was EASY!
To book, we called our travel agent, Opal Thompson, at the Flight Centre and asked her to find us a quote for Cuba. We wanted to go for a while, and it seemed like the right time with borders reopening.
Most Cubans have received their COVID-19 vaccines at this point. And, they were eager to welcome the tourists to help boost their economy. A high inoculation rate was also good news for us–it is safe, and there is no quarantine upon arrival.
Unlike most other people, we did not want to spend all our time on the beach. We wanted to explore Havana too.
Opal found a great 8-day Duo Package from Air Transat, allowing us to visit Havana and Varadero. The package came to $1,000 per person, including hotels, transfers, and meals at the hotel.
It was perfect.
We did not experience any issues at either Toronto or Varadero airports. We were going through a typical airport hassle around a direct 3-hour flight. As we like to say, we walked right through.
And there we were, in Cuba, kissed by the sun in 26-degree weather, heading to our first destination, La Habana.
Havana: Our heart is in Havana. Oh, Na Na.
Established in 1519, Havana is the capital of Cuba and is the center of Cuban culture, music, art, and food.
As you enter the city, you see the stunning buildings of the modern baroque brought to Havana from Europe. At the same time, this architectural style overlays a minimalist style of socialism. You see buildings intended to be the new Vegas for the U.S. visitors, and they are now rarely populated and waiting for their days of glory. You see the beautiful coast facing North, with the Florida Keys just over the horizon.
We stayed in an old classic Iberostar Parque Central hotel between Old Havana and New Havana.
There are many hotel and hostel options in Havana.
Some are new and modern; some are old and charming.
Parque Central is the latter.
It greets you with classic design and traditional staff uniforms. It opened to a hotel lobby lit through the sunroof and green tropical plants. In the middle of the bar is a grand staircase leading from the mezzanine to the main hotel lobby.
When you see the lobby, you remember Cuba from old movies. You hear salsa music and smell the freshness of a mojito. They have both.
Parque Central is in the heart of Havana.
It is 3 minutes away from the Capitolio and right next to the Grand Theatre of Havana. It is 10 minutes away from the Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion) and the Old Square (Plaza Vieja). It sits on the major walking arteries of Paseo del Prado, leading to the ocean, and Calle Obrapia, to Old Havana.
Aside from the great location, Parque Central offers two other highlights.
First, Parque Central has a Mediterranean restaurant, a Steakhouse, and a lobby bar. While the hotel food does not compare to what you can get on the streets of Havana, it is consumable and convenient. Try their Cuban sandwich and soup, and chase it with a mojito!
The second is the rooftop bar by the open-air pool, overlooking the city of Havana and the Capitolio. It is perfect to have a drink while lazing the day away in the warm waters. It is also ideal for an evening drink looking out at the lit-up Capitolio and Grand Teatro.
Generally, we were happy with our stay at Iberostar Parque Central.
What made the trip was our daily exploration of Havana.
To explore Havana, we recommend hiring a tour guide.
When we were there, many tourist agencies closed due to the pandemic. Hence, we used Airbnb experiences to find Feeling Havana, led by Yandy’s group.
For $40 cash per person (plus AirBnB charge), the tour includes an old car ride, a walking tour, and a drink at a few local bars. And it is so worth it.
We started with a car ride to see Havana as the sun began to set.
After meeting our guide Emmanuel, we boarded a classic red Ford convertible.
We rode to the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and then along the coast. As we rode, we saw the castles and citadels built to protect Havana from invasions in the 1500s.
Next, we stopped at the Square of the Revolution, where we stumbled onto an old car meet. Having a unique opportunity to see a lineup of cars, we sat behind the wheel of a few vehicles ourselves for a small tip. While learning, Fidel Castro gave an 18-hour speech at the advent of socialism in Cuba.
The car meet ended, and we headed back through New Havana into the rainforest. We learned about the afro-religion and saw practitioners along the river banks. People come here to pray to the old gods from the voodoo practice, even making animal sacrifices.
The car tour ended with a ride through Miramar and Malecon, the scenic ocean esplanade. At that point, we saw the sun coming to its lowest end, illuminating the city skyline in gold.
We continued our adventure on foot.
We visited all the key places in Old Havana on a walking tour.
We started with the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of Immaculate Conception. We then walked through several squares: Arms Square, Saint Francis Square, Cathedral Square, and Old Square. We remembered old Europe with small streets, open homes, and art as we walked.
We popped into a celebrity favourite La Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito. Later, we found a much smaller Fonda Al Pirata. We had Canchánchara, one of the oldest Cuban cocktails made with honey, lime, and aguardiente there.
We walked down Obispo Street to our hotel, at which point we parted with Emmanuel.
Knowing the lay of the land, the rest of our trip was exploring Havana independently.
Check out the Museum of Rum when in Havana.
Here, you will learn the history and the make of the Havana Club rum. You will have a chance to see some old pieces of equipment and a miniature model of the factory town of the past. The tour takes you through the distilling and ageing process, ending at a bar, where you taste rum. We tried 3 years, Reserva, and 7 years Havana Club here. You can also sign up to mix the cocktails and taste very old rum for an extra few dollars.
This is also your chance to get rare bottles of Havana Club rum. We purchased a snazzy rum set here with traditional rum cups.
Visit the Artisan Market to Get Your Souvenirs.
The artisan market offers many Cuban souvenirs, including artwork, magnets, and magic boxes. The competition for your attention is fierce. Despite that, the English-speaking salespeople will make you feel very welcome. Remember here, if you like a piece, bargain for it.
Have a cup of coffee or a drink at the Old Square.
Old Square is filled with tourists and locals. But, there is one bar that will give you both excellent coffee and a stunning view—bar Azucar. The bar is on the second level. Grab a table on the balcony and enjoy the scenery without a need to worry about a thing.
Check out La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano for cigars.
Cigars are a big deal in Cuba. You know it, and Cubans know it.
This is why many people will approach you on the streets and offer to sell cigars. Though this might sound tempting, these often are not the authentic real deal cigars. A polite “no, gracias” will help you avoid sketchy places and fake cigars. You will learn the phrase quickly.
We encourage you to go to legitimate places that sell Cuban cigars, like La Casa del Ron y del Tabaco Cubano. There, you will find professional advice and legitimate cigars. If you are a cigar connoisseur, you can also browse an extensive collection of fancy cigars there. Something you will not find on the streets.
Grab gelato from Heladería Mango & Cafe
Yes, you did hear it right. Cuba has gelato and it’s great. Cubans may lack some essential flavours, but they know the technique well. In fact, in Cuba, you can be confident you have gelato as we had difficulty finding cream, the base of ice cream.
Eat authentic Cuban Food at Teniente Rey 360 on Teniente Rey.
Not a glamorous place but loved by the locals for its cheap and delicious food. The servers here don’t speak much English. Yet, they will be the most attentive to your needs and help you in any way they can. Try Ropa Vieja, Cuban slow-cooked pulled beef, paired with plantain chips and rice and beans.
Try chocolate cake and pizza from hole-in-the-wall bakery.
On the streets of Havana, you will notice many people carrying pastry and pockets on pieces of paper. These come from many tiny bakeries selling cake and pizza for as little as 40 pesos, and Cubans love it. You will love it too if you don’t mind spending a few minutes in line.
And with that comes the end of our adventures in Havana.
We are off to Varadero!
We left Havana in a cab to make our way to Varadero. One and a half-hour later, we arrived at Iberostar Selection Bella Vista in Varadero.
At first look, the hotel front was not much. But, the closer you get to the entrance, the more you see how enjoyable your stay is going to be. The beauty of the hotel is hidden on the other side.
The hotel greets you with an open-air lobby. You see the palm trees, the resting deck where all events are happening, and the central bar. The entrance then leads you to the beautiful, tri-coloured water of the Atlantic Ocean.
Our room faced the ocean and the outdoor stage from the 5th floor of the main complex. It was neat and standard for an all-inclusive hotel.
There was nothing unexpected at this hotel. Here, you will find the buffet and a la carte restaurants, a variety of adult and kid pools, and several bars.
You will find lounging sun chairs by the pools, some in the water, some in the sun, and others under gazebos. The main pool opens to the collection and the surface so that you can sip on your mojito right in the water.
Varadero has one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen.
And photos don’t do it justice.
And believe me, I have seen some great beaches in the Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean.
Yet, this Cuban beach competes well.
You probably have heard of the white sand with grains so small you feel like walking on a soft carpet. You probably have seen the clear water blue, azure, and turquoise. You probably remembered those moments under the gentle warm kisses of the sun.
That is Varadero.
And, this is the main reason people come here.
Not busy due to COVID-19, the hotel had enough patrons to feel jolly, but not too many to wait in line. The restaurants did not have any wait time, serving buffet style or a la carte. It was a very comfortable and relaxing atmosphere throughout.
Although most people come to Varadero to relax, we like active rest.
Hence, we participated in several adventures while we were in Varadero.
We took a catamaran for a sail ride and snorkelling.
For $20 per person, we were able to book a sailing and snorkelling right from the hotel beach “marina.” This life-jacket-equipped adventure takes you on the ride on the wind sail to a small reef. When there, you jump into the water and look at the multicoloured fish. The sails person feeds the fish around you, so you are swimming with the fish. It’s pretty cool and allows you to take a few pictures in the water if you have a water-proof camera.
Day-long catamaran adventures include a catamaran ride, an island visit, dolphins, and lunch. This excursion will cost you about $80 bucks per person and is worth it if you are looking to explore the sea.
We went on a Safari Jeep Adventure.
This excursion was an epic day-long adventure!
After getting up early in the morning, you join the caravan of SUVs (not quite Jeeps, but they do the trick well). You can either drive the SUV (if you know manual) or ask someone else in your group to drive.
The first stop is snorkelling.
You might think, wait-did you not do a snorkelling tour on the catamaran.
Yet, this snorkelling experience is along a much more expansive reef with a much richer view of the sea life. You will see different coloured fish around you, including stingrays, starfish, and jellyfish. Most are not dangerous, and the crew will make sure you are safe in the water.
Here, you can also do some scuba diving if you know what you are doing, and get a drink and a massage at the shore afteer.
Your next destination is Cueva Saturno.
Cueva Saturno is a cave with a brilliant blue freshwater pool. The depth of this natural pool ranges from 1 meter deep on one end to 22 meters deep on the other. You can jump into the water from the platform and go for a short swim.
Next, was a speed boat run along a forest river.
You have a chance to sail a speedboat along the river going into the island at this stop. As you lead the boat to high gear, you see local people and nature on the shore. The tree roots reach deep into the water as you zip through.
You switch drivers three times. Everyone has a chance to be a captain.
You return to the marina for drinks and a small show from indigenous Cuban people.
Cuban food at the ranch.
You have worked out some appetite by this point. The next stop is a ranch serving traditional Cuban lunch: beef stew, rice and beans, and plantain chips. If you are willing to spend some extra, you can get a grilled lobster here as well. After finishing lunch, you spend about 25 minutes wondering about the ranch. There are resting spaces, bows and arrows, and a horse ride available.
The adventure then takes you to the Sacred Tree.
Sacred or not, this tree is enormous. And it grants wishes if you walk around it three times, Make sure to tell it your desires in excruciating detail because the tree will find all the sneaky ways of giving you wishes, even at your own expense.
The final part of the tour is a safari.
This 100% is going to be a bumpy part of the trip. Buckle up. You will feel the car going up and down and hear the screeching sound of the bushes going along the vehicle’s body. On this ride, you will see a small canyon and the local rural population going about their day. You finish the ride with a beautiful view of the Atlantic ocean around the Varadero highway.
Don’t forget about Downtown Varadero!
Though not huge, downtown Varadero has a few things to offer.
We explored the beaches on one side of the downtown overlooking the peninsula. We also checked out the artisan markets, filled with souvenir options. Calle 64 was the leading tourist destination, filled with restaurants, dancing, and shops.
We ate at Varadero 60. Famed for its seafood, it offers fresh grilled fish, lobster, and seafood pasta. It was better than hotel food, and we recommend checking this place out when you are in Varadero.
And that was that for our trip to Cuba.
We loved exploring Cuba and all its diversity. From the beautiful architecture of Havana to the beaches of Varadero, it was stunning. From all the adventures to chill drinks and food, it was exciting.
We will be back.
But, before we go, here are 5 things you need to know about Cuba:
1. Bring American or Canadian Dollars, or Euros
Due to the government changing their currency, Cuban Pesos (CUP) inflation is high. Many local stores will refuse to take anything but U.S. dollars and deny you service if you try to pay CUP or credit card. Bring USD to pay for goods and services and withdrawing some CUPs for tips. This will allow you to have the freedom to explore Cuba without any concerns.
2. Avoid people selling you stuff on the street
There are going to be many people selling you stuff on the street. They will spot you from across the street, come by, ask you what time it is. Friendly at the get-go, they will offer to sell you some cigars, taking you to sketchy places if you follow. They will also try to lure you to local restaurants. Remember, life in Cuba is hard, and this is only one of the ways people hustle to make some money.
Our guide and hotel staff recommended not to follow these people as the cigars are not legitimate and the restaurants not so great. That said, they are not dangerous.
A simple “no, gracias” and walking away will do.
3. Eat local and support the local community
Let me be frank, Cuban food is FANTASTIC. But only if you have it in local restaurants like Teniente Rey and Varadero 60. So, why do so many people complain about Cuban food?
Many Cuban places try to serve our North American food to please our taste buds and fail. Tasteless hamburgers, odd constructions called tacos, and pasta with no taste.
Our recommendation: eat local. Cuban sandwiches, soups, pulled beef, and street pizza will show explosive flavours. They will also show the ingenuity and talent of the local chefs.
Skip the hotel and eat out.
4. Tip well to get good service
Cuban service asks for tips.
If you tip well, you will get great service.
For excursions, we recommend tipping 10-20 USD. For full service at the restaurant and bar, 200-300 CUP. 20-50 CUP for the food and drink service: bar, coffee, snacks.
At the end of the trip, all hotel staff knew me as I tend to tip well and brought me my drink of choice, Havana Club 7 neat before I even asked.
Don’t skimp on tips, and the staff will not skimp on service.
5. Specify the brand you want in your drinks
Your drinks will be diluted, and the bar staff will use local Cuban alcohols instead of more delicious and expensive Havana Club or Olmeca. Always specify the brand of rum and tequila you want to improve the taste of drinks tenfold. You can also ask to make them extra boozy.
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All content in the post, including recommendations and opinions, are our own.