In January 2014 me and my girlfriend Sanna took a trip to Varadero, Cuba as we had some spare time. The travel agency was Apollomatkat, the Finnish branch of Kuoni Travel. We flew with Finnair from Helsinki and stayed at Melia Varadero. Here’s a little report of the trip and some advice for anyone heading to Cuba’s tourist peninsula.
There aren’t that many alternatives in getting to Cuba from Finland, at least doing things simply. Finnair flies to Varadero from Helsinki twice a week and we took an early start on a Wednesday morning starting with our car at 2:34 am. Flight left on schedule and took a little over 11 hours flying directly to Cuba.
Finnair doesn’t tell you very much about in-flight services, but we learned there’s two meals and no drinks other than coffee (not even water!!) for free and the use of the airplane’s entertainment system is not included costing you 8 Euros should you want it.
During the flight we got the Cuban tourist cards and customs declarations to fill. The question of the day with the customs declaration was should you list your cameras or Ipads or whatever in it. In our case it didn’t matter at all, as the lady collecting the papers did not even look at them and we were never asked of those in any way.
Once in Cuba, the 270 Finns lined up for passport control and security check after which the customs declarations were collected. Outside the airport there were the buses waiting to take us to hotels. No problems whatsoever entering Cuba.
Melia Varadero is a large hotel with 490 rooms, all in one building shaped like a snowflake. There’s also several restaurants and bars and at least one that is open 24 hours a day. The hotel is all-inclusive (only?). The drinks include also quite a number of international spirits besides the local ones.
Check-in had one funny thing, the reservation being found under Sanna’s name even though made by me. Knowing the name Kuoni also helped a little, no sign of Apollo anywhere in the hotel’s papers.
The room was nice with a very large bed, a balcony and bathroom with a shower/bathtub. It also included air-conditioning which was quite effective in cooling the room but had little help with the moisture. Everything is a little damp in Cuba.
Having read in many places over the internet that food in Cuba is not especially good or tasty, the foods served in Melia Varadero were a positive surprise. Actually, I have never found such large a variety of dishes as were available in the buffet restaurant La Habana. Food was also properly seasoned in most cases, sometimes requiring just a little salt to add. The only disappointment was the beef so be prepared to eat a lot of fish 🙂
One thing to pay attention to is the a la carte dining in the hotel’s other restaurants. Book a table early, preferably immediately. We missed the a la carte restaurants as we were too late and everything was fully booked. The one time we ate off the list was one lunch in the beach side restaurant Trinidad serving very nice fish. From other Finnish tourists we heard that the Steak House did not offer much better beef than what was available in the buffet.
All-inclusive means you have as much drinks served as you wish. The selection included very nice Cuban beer, unknown but quite ok red and white wine and a lot of spirits with all the fruit juices you can imagine. A number of import spirits also, including Jameson and Jack Daniels for example. However, the rum in various Cuban cocktails was of course more interesting. Try to get your drinks from the bars, either the Guantanamera or the Piano Bar as they really make them, the guys at the pool bar don’t have all the ingredients.
Tap water is clean in Varadero, but everyone says not to drink it because of different bacteria. We didn’t drink it but all the ice in your drinks means you won’t avoid tap water – anyway, we did not have any problems with it. Bottled drinking water is included and brought to your room, but only 1,5 litres per day. You can ask the cleaners for some more, especially if you tip them, and also for refills in the bar. Just beware the old male bartender 😉
Shopping and money
In Cuba you use Cuban pesos, either convertible or national. One convertible peso is equal to one US dollar.
The prices in Cuba are quite similar to Finland and there’s really not much to shop in Varadero compared to European cities. There is, however, a small shopping mall Plaza America right next to hotel Melia Varadero with pretty much everything you’d need on a beach holiday. So no need to bring a lot of toiletries or sun screen.
Many places also tell you to bring a lot of cash with you. This also is not necessary as you can pay with a Visa card both in the hotel shop and (at least most of) the shops in the mall. There’s also an ATM (a cash machine) in the mall. The cost of making a withdrawal of 150 Cuban convertible pesos from my account was 121 Euros, including all the fees, thus the banks taking a little less than 5 Euros or just over 3 per cent for the change.
Staying in an all-inclusive hotel you would not necessarily need any money, but you should still change at least something for the tips. It is a custom to leave a little tip (half a peso, peso, more if you really liked the service) for the waiter and it really seems to be appreciated. No wonder though, as people make just 20-25 pesos a month on average in Cuba, so even one peso is big money.
Weather, sun and the wind
It was mostly between 20 and 25 degrees centigrade (68 to 77 in Fahrenheit) in the daytime and a little colder during the nights. Travel agency brochures say that sometimes it might be windy in Varadero but that’s not exactly the whole truth – other that one day when the air was almost still it was very windy, always. And it’s not a light breeze, it’s a real wind. You can still bathe in the sun though. And, if it rains, it rains a lot, so bring a warm sweater.
There was one quite an annoying habit people had at the hotel pool but I think it’s common: many took their beach towels to reserve places in the sun very early in the mornings. The beach between Melia Varadero and the golf club is very nice and very clean with very slowly deepening waters. The other direction, eastwards of the hotel is not quite as nice but ok. Unfortunately it is not possible to walk down the beach all the way to Varadero center due to the golf course.
The hotel staff arranged some activities every day but not many people participated. You’d snatch some easy victories in the beach games and receive the awards in the evening should you wish..
In the mornings it was quite nice to take a run on the beach to the golf club and back, just beware the jellyfish. There were no signs regarding the jellies but a Canadian couple told us that they could paralyze you. I don’t know, did not try them.
For one week there’s quite enough to do in Varadero, mostly bathing in the sun, but for longer stays I’d recommend taking a trip somewhere else also. We took a travel agency organized bus trip to Havana but there’s also other cities to visit. Downtown Varadero is quickly seen as there’s little to see, few places to eat and visit but quite a lot of handicrafts to buy if you are into those.
Barcelo Solymar – a little detour on the way home
Coming back to Finland from Cuba proved a little more difficult than entering but this had nothing to do with Cuba or Cuban authorities. Finnair had some technical problems and thus we had an extra day in Varadero, this time at hotel Barcelo Solymar. We got a bungalow for the night and an all-inclusive treatment for the evening and morning. On the quick look the hotel seemed also quite nice but did not quite compare to Melia being a little more weary.
Exiting Cuba and the airport of Juan Gualberto Gomez
Once the plane finally was on the way to Varadero airport, we were taken there too. One thing having caused a little confusion was the airport tax, which is included in the travel package. Having checked-in to the plane, you’ll get your 25 pesos from the next counter, pay it to another one and get a stamp onto your boarding pass which you’ll need at the passport control. Once again, no problems with the formalities.
At the airport there are little kiosks offering souveniers, books, tobacco, cigars and rum. There’s also a cafeteria or two to get a snack while waiting your flight. Nothing fancy, but a little bit of everything.
There is also a money exchange counter after the security control so you don’t have to spend all the pesos but can change them back to Euros with quite a reasonable rate. We got 25 Euros and four peso coins in exchange of 40 pesos thus losing about 3,5 pesos in the process.
Absolutely yes if you are into easy beach holidays and don’t mind the long flight 🙂