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CUBA -- see once and never return

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When we arrived at the Veradero Airport on January 17/10 we were met by maintenance staff, customs and security staff all wearing masks over their mouths and noses. So, the question is: protection from their germs or ours? Or, is this a hold-up? Given the Cuban attitude that tourists are cash cows (tourism is their largest government money maker far ahead of sisal, sugar, rum, cigars and oil), probably the latter. Our photos were taken, we passed thru security scanning on the way INTO the country, our tourist paper handed out on the plane was stamped but, not a mark appeared on our passports. The bus trip from the airport to hotel drop-offs went smoothly narrated by a Tourist Guide who told us how lucky we were to be in Cuba and how tipping vastly improved service. Yea, capitalism lives!

We stayed at the Melia Las Americas hotel in Varadero, Cuba for one week in January 2010 on a WestJet all-inclusive vacation. It promotes itself as a 5-star hotel but turns out to be a 3-star. Built in the early 1990s, it is clean enough but has low wattage lighting in public areas. Many steps to the lobby, to the beach, to the restaurants, to the golf club – great exercise but not handicap-friendly if that’s important to you. Only two small elevators in the main hotel but, again, you can take the stairs. The Varadero Golf Club is wrapped around two sides of the Las Americas Hotel. The beach is small and hemmed in at one end by the expropriated DuPont House (Xanadu) converted into a restaurant and clubhouse on a cliff and the Melia Varadero Hotel at the other end.

The anal-retentive Cuban tourist police make sure you do not use any other beach than the one for the hotel where you are staying. Got the wrong colour wrist band? Go back! Forget any long walks along the beaches unless you stay on a property that includes a long beach. This confinement of tourists is not for any safety reason but so the Communist government can keep track of people. The public Las Americas Shopping Mall is a short walk away. Hotel food is acceptable and plentiful. The open-air La Robleza restaurant by the pool is pleasant but opened later every day we were there – 12:00 Noon, became 12:30 PM then 1:00 PM. And stick with the luncheon meals – our paella took an hour to prepare but was a disappointing heap of rice, turmeric, one shrimp, one small chicken chunk and a piece of shellfish. The imported wine and domestic beer are good. The resort musicians all have CDs for sale ($10-$20 equivalent) and there are theatre shows every night.

Take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus ($5 equivalent for 9:00AM-9:00PM) to see the tip of the sand spit (but watch those private hotel/beach police!) and back to downtown Veradero and its flea markets to buy junky souvenirs and T-shirts plastered with Che Guevara’s mug shot. Changing Canuck bucks into Cuban tourist Monopoly money (called CUC) is a scam so try to change enough just once to get you through the entire stay. This is easily done because there is not much to buy on the beach, in the shops or at the markets. Break up your stay in Varadero by taking a day tour to Havana. The Spanish colonial architecture is crumbling, the old-style 1950s cars are now kept to amuse the tourists (most have replacement Hyundai or Kia motors) and, the government-run cultural tourist gift warehouse is full of white sales cubicles and computer-generated ‘art’ (there are a few, but very few, original artists). Had a watery Mojito at an Old Town bar supposedly frequented by Ernest Hemmingway. We were approached many times by street beggars, mostly old men and women. This will round out your excursion day.

On departure, our 11:00 AM hotel bus pick-up to the airport was prompt and contained another Tourist Guide who explained the final tourist tax grab – the $25 CUC per person “Tasa Aeroportuaria” that translates as “Airport Tax”. Can’t get home without paying it. CUC cash only! Two sour-faced Security Department guards in military uniform stood at the entry to the WestJet plane to collect the boarding card stubs showing each of us had paid our head tax and could leave. We will not return. See Cuba once out of curiosity but there are other islands with equally clear waters and soft sands and, a much better attitude.

Note, that two months after our visit to the peoples’ paradise of Cuba, none of the postcards we sent back to Canada have ever arrived. Stealing stamps and trashing international postal mail seems to be a common activity. And yes, we had the ‘correct’ postage.

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