Because this is my third trip to Cuba (twice before for business, my first time at a resort), I may be a bit biased, but I have read some poor reviews for the Arenas Blancas resort, and I must say, these people need to get some proper perspective.
The hotel is nice, relatively new, and clean. The location is great, not far from downtown shopping areas in Varadero, and it is a short trip past the pool onto a beautiful beach. The rooms are clean, and this resort also does not charge a surcharge for single occupancy, so you can get this price even if you are traveling alone.
The facilities are good. The excursions are well-organized and fairly well scheduled (for Cuba… North Americans are notorious tightwads about schedules and timing). Cuba doesn’t work the way Canada does, so you can either make yourself miserable complaining that nothing occurs on time, or you can just relax. Don’t forget Toto, you are not in Kansas anymore, so stop being a pain in the butt about time and schedules!!!
For the price, I would recommend this resort. My trip was $840 CDN, all taxes included, flying from my hometown of Saint John, NB, via SunWing. This is for an all-inclusive stay, including food and drinks. Add $250 – $300 CDN for excursions and tips, and you can have a great winter getaway vacation for less than $1200 CDN/person. How can anyone seriously complain about that??? If you want the Ritz, pay for the Ritz and go somewhere else. I can’t go to Halifax for a week for this kind of money, and the beaches around Halifax this time of year are not very appealing!
Remember that this country has been under a brutal economic embargo by the US government for many years, so their ability to obtain some of the things you may find commonplace in your everyday life is made more difficult. Plus, they rely much more heavily on public transportation and the generosity of friends for travel every day.
The money for tourists is Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC). These exchanged the week I stayed for about $1.14 Canadian. In contrast, the locals use Cuban pesos, which trade at a rate of about 24 pesos per 1 CUC, but tourists are not permitted to spend Cuban pesos. Don’t bring US dollars, there is a 10% tariff on US money in Cuba.
Many things are priced very well in Cuba. If your fascination is with the usual sins, bottles of rum (“ron” in Spanish) and boxes of cigars can be had very inexpensively. Rum sells for between $3 CUC and $30 CUC per bottle, depending on the quality and age. The average Havana Club (tourist brand) rum will run you ~$5 CUC/bottle in the stores (tiendas) and a few dollars more at the hotels. I don’t smoke, so none of them interested me, but cigars range from several cigars per $1CUC to as much as $15 CUC/cigar for the big Montecristos. If you don’t really care about the glitz and glamour of a pretty box, almost everyone working at the resort has a “friend” who can get you black market cigars for much less. My last trip, a Cuban friend from the University I was working with helped me pick up 50 hand-made Cuban cigars for a colleague at work for ~$5 CUC.
The tour guides say that baseball is the number 1 sport in Cuba is baseball, followed very closely by hitch-hiking (their primary form of travel). I would add that haggling is probably a close third. Most prices you see listed are subject to “negotiation” (though not in official tiendas and hotel shops). While you can easily drop 20-25% from a price in a market (and I recommend you do this), unless it is a major purchase, haggling any further means you are really just beating someone up over bits of money you don’t need but could mean a world of difference to the vendor. My time is worth more than haggling for a few pesos.
The official language of Cuba is Spanish, although there are many multi-lingual people, and English is, of course, a popular language as well. In Varadero, language was not an issue. If you are willing to learn a little Spanish, they know enough English and/or French to get you through any issues you may encounter.
If you can order a beer (cervesa) or a mixed drink (pina colada, mohito, cuba libre, ron punch), can ask “How Much” (cuanto cuesta?), can figure out the 10 basic numbers (uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez), can say “Yes” (si) and “No” (no), ask where the washrooms are (banos?) and be nice (Gracias!), you will do fine!
The beach, as noted above, was just a short walk past the pool, through some palm trees. It offered nice, soft sands and beautiful water for swimming. The beach had volleyball nets, kayaks, paddle boats, and a mini-Catamaran, all available for resort guests to use. There were also plenty of sun chairs for lounging around, and a beach bar nearby offered a large range of drinks and food all day long.
The pool is excellent, clean, probably one of the the nicest pools in Varadero. It is an interesting design, with various areas for different types of entertainment/water sports, and a children’s area. The water is chilly, which is just what the doctor ordered for those hot afternoon tanning sessions when you are at the pool because you are tired of picking sand from body cavities. Has a decent pool bar that is right next to the pool (no swim-up bar, but that’s not a big deal). Would maybe have liked a deep section (I think the deepest is about 4′), but again, it is for cooling off and playing, not doing laps.
During the day are many excursions, and at the resort were daily children’s activities like learning to dance, etc. Early every night was a show for kids. Kids would be ushered onstage, costumed, and allowed to put on a show for the audience, which I am sure the family-oriented travelers would love.
Later in the evening is live entertainment, sometimes game shows, sometimes live music, and several nights, the Arenas Blancas hotel dance troupe performs various original shows. The dance troupe is very good, professional, and entertaining, so if you want to stay on the resort instead of heading downtown to Calle 62 (a local night spot) or somewhere else for entertainment, I recommend checking them out a few nights.
Opening from 11 PM – 2 AM was an on-site “disco bar”. I think it was in a poorly marked location, but it was always at least half-full when we were there. One thing to note, the bartender in the disco bar makes the best drinks in the resort, worth visiting for that if nothing else!
All excursions can be booked through your respective travel representative in the lobby of the hotel. They will take payments (even from credit cards, as long as they are not drawn from US Banks), and make all the arrangements for you. The day of your excursion, a bus picks you up at the main door to your resort, takes you with people from other resorts to the excursion site, and then picks you up and returns you at the end of the day.
Some excursions that are possible include the Catamaran trip, a Jeep Safari, SCUBA diving, fishing, various types of trips to Havana, jet skis, boat tours, etc. These range in price from $50 CUC for jet skis to $135 CUC for the full Havana package with dinner and tickets to see the Tropicana show.
Our group enjoyed several excursions, including the Catamaran day trip, the Jeep Safari, and I did some SCUBA diving at Playa El Coral, a marine park between Varadero and Matanzas, a nearby city. The Catamaran and Jeep Safari were great, as was the SCUBA diving. To save on space, I will likely post individual info for those, with pictures, at a future time.
OK, this resort does fall down a bit when it comes to friendliness of staff. While there were quite a few shining stars working at this resort, and most of the staff were very friendly if you took the time to get to know them; however, some were just downright grumpy.
While much maligned by the self-appointed food connoisseurs who have posted online, I found the food to be fine. At every meal, if you went relatively early to the buffet, there were plenty of good options. If you wait until hundreds of others have been through, you get the leftovers. Plus, Cuba sometimes has food shortages and/or delivery problems, so you may not always get everything offered each day. Live with it.
The a la carte restaurants were very good. The Italian was probably the weakest, but the authentic Cuban was very good, and the International (near the beach) was fabulous and would rival many higher-end Canadian restaurants for food quality.
As for the types of foods, remember that this resort does not only cater to Canadians, it also caters to South Americans, Europeans, Asians, and the odd Aussie as well. The ketchup is not Heinz, there is no relish for the hotdogs, and their pepper is different. Milk is not a daily staple as a regular drink in Cuban life. Not all of the world eats the types of food we like here in Canada. We just need to get over it, pull our heads out of our butts, and be ready to try new things. This is Cuba, not Toronto. If you want your Filet Mignon steak every night, go to one of the nearby local Cuban restaurants and pay for that, or some fresh lobster for between $10 – $20 CUC.
Final Words of Advice
Rooms are all wired 220 Volts, so either bring a converter to charge up your cameras and iPods, or you can drop them off at the front desk and they will charge them for you.
Bring a stainless steel travel mug for your drinks. The bartenders will fill these up for you whenever you like. Plastic travel mugs will do, but the stainless steel ones hold up better, are cheap enough (Wally World and Zellers-type stores sell them for about $10 CDN), and they can be traded with Cubans in the markets and stores for trinkets so you don’t even have to bring them home with you. If you don’t bring a mug, the small plastic cups they have at the bars that you must use if near the pool or on the beach do nothing to keep a drink cold in the sun and also force you to make many more trips to the bar to stay “hydrated”…
Anyone who has traveled to Cuba knows that toilet seats and toilet paper are a rare commodity in public places. The rooms had seats and were always stocked with toilet paper. The public washrooms in the resort were generally the same, although some didn’t have toilet seats and most experienced toilet paper shortages at one point or another. Drying towels for hands after washing were pretty much non-existent. Bring hand sanitizer!
Don’t forget to save $25 CUC for the airport departure tax, the Cuban government’s last parting shot at you and your hard currency before leaving the country. While airport taxes are not unusual, particularly in non-Western worlds, they tend to be included in flight costs, but not here.
One word of advice about SunWing, this charter is very picky about their baggage limits. Each passenger is permitted 2 bags, with a combined weight of a maximum of 25 kg (~55 lbs), and that includes your carry-on luggage! If you have clothes, camera gear, and SCUBA gear (like me!), you are pushing the envelope on weight. If you are at all worried, it may be worth the extra $40 to upgrade to Elite status. This gives you an additional 10 kg of weight, not to mention supposedly giving you more foot room in your chair, although the plane I flew on had no first/business class areas. The penalty for being over the 25 kg limit is the closest thing to legalized theft I have ever seen – $20 CDN/kg overweight fees. Again, you get what you pay for, and SunWing is a discount charter line.