A Taste of Cuba
Here’s a snapshot of my 5 days in Cuba, with highlights of what you can experience on this controversial island.
Landing in Matanzas, Cuba, I could tell I wasn’t in Kansas (or Toronto) anymore. The lush green scenery sprinkled with multi-colored low-rise buildings was in direct contrast to the modern steel and glass North American landscape I was used to. The airport itself was clean and inviting, with vibrant tropical images but there were no brightly lit duty-free shops or Starbucks. A wave of anxiety came over me.
Sure, the presence of communism was everywhere and the country’s revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, had just passed away, but my fears were more superficial. I would be spending five days away from my everyday comforts (no salted caramel mocha!) and that was a bit scary.
Arriving at my 5-star Varadero resort, a mimosa eased my nerves. Smiling staff greeted me with a friendly “hola”. I was told the best part of Cuba was the warm people and that’s something I can testify to. In the sunny and hot days to come, my apprehensions about this controversial island would melt away.
Cuba is raw, but genuine.
Instead of hitting me like a tidal wave, as I was fearing, culture shock lapped at my feet. There are no ads on the roadside, where instead people queue to hitchhike with complete confidence. Music and art are a part of everyday life (along with baseball, I’m told). It’s this culture that offers a unique experience you won’t find anywhere else. It’s this authenticity that will make you want to come for the first time and many times after that.
Here’s a snapshot of my Cuban experience and a few must-dos on my return list:
Indulge in Authentic Cuban Food
I was told by several sources that the food in Cuba leaves much to be desired. On my first morning, I took a chance at the resort café where I was expecting water-downed coffee with extra sugar. Instead, a barista named Carlos made me a classic cappuccino. No flavor shot, no cream, no salt topping. It was the best cappuccino I’ve had outside of Rome (sorry Starbucks). The taste was subtle but the coffee was strong. A hand-painted coffee mug painting hung inside to remind visitors that this was no chain café. It was the perfect way to prepare my palate for Cuban cuisine.
Varadero is not short on dining options, and every visitor staying in a luxury resort has to venture out to try at least one. My recommendation is a true Cuban experience that goes beyond your plate at Rancho Gaviota. On a guided Jeep safari tour (or on your own via taxi) you can visit the farm where the restaurant serves a local Cuban lunch featuring excellent vegetarian options like rice and black beans, local citrus fruits, and something I couldn’t get enough of throughout my stay – red guava jelly – a candy-like thick jelly that tastes like dried strawberry jam (my mouth is literally watering thinking about it!)
At night, try Calle 62, a local open-air salsa club, for some tantalizing Cuban cocktails. You can get everything from a pina colada to a lemon daquiri, but the flavors are more intense, with fresh lime, coconut and the stable Cuban rum. My fave was the Coco Loco – a coconut cream and rum mixture that was sweet and refreshing.
Swim With the Tide
The main attraction in Cuba, especially Varadero, is the beach. I’ve been to many beaches worldwide (Bahamas, Italy, Greece) and stand by the claim that Varadero Beach is one of the very best. The clear aqua water and white sand are stunning but what you especially get here are pristine, untouched, waters. There are only a few water sports offered, no souvenir shack, no beach volleyball, nothing to take away from the simple beauty. I got one day of completely calm waters but thoroughly enjoyed the wavy days with no undertow.
There are equally stunning beaches coast to coast from Cayo Coco in the east to Holguin in the south, each with their own landscape. You can arrange snorkeling and boat tours through your resort but there’s nothing that can beat a lazy day on the beach.