The first thing I noticed were the guys who unload bags off planes when we landed at the Varadero airport. You know, those guys who, in Canada, wear enormous snowsuits that mask any sign of humanity and whom you always feel sorry for since they have to stand outside in the cold all day.
I noticed those guys in Cuba because they were wearing t-shirts, not snowsuits. T-shirts!!!! In April!!! The excitement almost triggered some hyperventilating. T-shirts in April! I love this place already.
It was night when we landed, so I had big ideas of heading right to bed. But it’s not like that when you’re on Vacation in Cuba. We bought some beer at the airport. Outside, mind you. We didn’t even have to go to the bar. In Cuba, the bar goes to you.
Then we waited for our friends who exchanged their money at the airport Cadeca. They returned with confirmations that my guidebook was right: count your money carefully or they’ll try to rip you off.
The resort didn’t look quite like that yet because it was night, but I didn’t get any pictures of the resort at night and I figured that if I didn’t provide any pictures by now, you’d all stray.
Here’s another not-night picture of the resort.
We were greeted with (free) strawberry daiquiris by our friends who flew in from Halifax this morning.
This is the unfair thing about group travel: those who flew from Halifax paid less (flying out of Halifax is so much cheaper than flying out of St. John’s) yet got a whole extra day. Damn Nova Scotians.
By then, Vacation fever has settled in and going to bed became an idea of the past. I changed into some party gear, clutched my strawberry daiquiri and went to spend some time on the terrace with my classmates. DO YOU KNOW LONG ITS BEEN SINCE I’VE SEEN A TERRACE NOT COVERED IN SNOW? OMG.
Varadero feels like an amusement park for Canadian tourists. The day after a night of strawberry daiquiris, I took the double decker bus into town to make some Viazul bookings and, true to myself, just “to see”.
I quite enjoyed the double decker. So much that I spent the better part of the day going around and around. It’s 5$ or 5CUC for the day, and you can get on and off as you want. Best thing about the town.
Otherwise, there are many markets.
There are also people who sell souvenirs in front of their houses. The souvenirs are actually reasonably priced and are of surprisingly good quality. (And this is even coming from someone who worked in a souvenir shop for 4 years.) Lots of wood carvings, lots of musical instruments, lots of paintings.
I don’t usually buy souvenirs. I used to bring back souvenirs for my whole family whenever I went somewhere. But over the years, my parents ended up with so many mugs, shot glasses, pencils, weird sculptures and snow globes which ended covered in dust that the charm of getting souvenirs kind of wore off.
This time I bought a cookbook. I’ll cook my parents a nice Cuban dinner when I see them next. That’ll be the souvenir I bring back to them.
I eventually found the Viazul station. Calle 36 off the Autopista. I didn’t realize that the road that goes through Varadero isn’t the Autopista, so it took me at least one wrong turn. Not that there are a lot of roads in the area….the peninsula is pretty narrow.
I walked in to buy a ticket to Havana, hoping I could get one all the way to Vinales. You need two busses to get to Vinales: a 3 hour ride to Havana, then a 3 hour ride from Havana to Vinales. Customer service in Cuba has an awful reputation, so I wasn’t surprised when the ticket sale booth was empty. I had a seat in the waiting room and looked around.
The Viazul, which is a tourist and rich-people bus, station is separate from the locals Astro bus station. So the waiting room was filled of white-faced, sweaty people with sunburns, just like me.
The ticket salesperson eventually came back. It actually didn’t take him very long. I suppose that living in Newfoundland for 5 years makes a person immune to long waits for customer service. I’m impressed by anything that doesn’t involve a few formal complaints and a screaming match to get done.
Me: 8:00 for Havana, por favor!
Viazul guy: 8:00?
Me: Yes, 8:00. Would it be possible to buy a ticket for Vinales while I’m here too?
Viazul guy: Qué?
Viazul guy: Vinales 4:00! 11:30 Havana, 4:00 Vinales.
Me: No, 8:00 Havana, 4:00 Vinales.
Viazul guy: 11:30 Havana.
Me: No, 8:00 Havana.
Eventually I made him understand that I wanted to be on the 8 am bus for Havana, so I’d have a few hours to explore the city before heading out to the countryside at 4 pm.
I couldn’t get a return ticket, but I did have tickets to get me all the way to Vinales.
After securing transportation, I turned my thoughts toward lunch.
I’m terrible when it comes to selecting a place to eat. I made my way up and down the main street of Varadero, peaking in restaurants, regretting that I’d forgotten my guide book at the hotel.
People eat late in Cuba, usually around 2 pm. So at noon, I couldn’t use my normal “choose based on the people in restaurant” strategy. I wrapped a bandana around my head to ward off the heat (unlike most Canadians, I’m not bothered by blistering heat, but my body wasn’t quite used to the shock of the drastic climate change yet), grit my teeth and kept walking.
I noticed a busy side street. The people there were Cubans (or, at the very least, Mexican tourists…rumour has it there are no true Cubans in Varadero outside of tourism workers, but I saw plenty of folk who looked Cuban). I was curious. I wonder what good, exciting discoveries were waiting for me down that side street.
My stomach was digesting itself, my legs hurt and I was getting dizzy. I’d need to drink water soon or I’d find myself on the floor saying weird things in a few minutes. I saw a gas station in the distance. Gas station! I figured I’d just buy some food there and give up on my dreams of a delicious meal.
At the gas station, I was confronted by my first Cuban culture shock.
I guess gas stations around the world provide what people who are driving are more likely to need. In Canada and the US, gas stations sell beverages, snacks, magazines and road maps.
In Cuba gas stations sell….car parts.
Keep that in mind if you ever get the idea to drive through Cuba.
The gas station was a let down, but behind the gas station, I saw why the side street was so busy.
A small plaza stretched for about a block. Hoping to find some food, I made my way through the plaza. At the end, I discovered a real amusement park. One for Cubans, not for tourists. Well, I suspect it was made for tourists: it was in Varadero and all the prices were in tourist currency. But the rides were so run down and sketchy that no stuck-up, pompous tourist would dare touch them.
I’m not stuck-up or pompous, but I was really hungry and was feeling a little awkward since it had now been about half an hour since I’d seen another tourist. Around me, everyone spoke Spanish and, with my yellow hair, my red face and my bandana, I kind of stuck out in the crowd. As a result, I didn’t bother with the rides.
Instead, I located some tables under a canopy. I walked up to the counter, took the menu, pointed at “ensalada de pollo” and “aqua minerale” and stumbled to a seat. I pulled out my e-reader and got back into Namah’s Curse, which I had started reading on the plane. I ignored the weird looks. So what if this was a sit down restaurant where I’m not supposed to order at the counter. I was hungry, man!
It didn’t even occur to me at the time that no one around had probably ever seen an e-reader before.
The food was delicious. Chicken salad and a water bottle are what they are, but after stumbling around in the heat and humidity for hours, they were godsent. And they cost me less than 2$. Of course, the waiter screwed up my change and I ended up spending almost 4$ with tip, but whatever. I didn’t even bother correcting him.
Sated, I rode the double decker bus for a few more hours and eventually found myself back at the resort, with time to shower and get ready for the dinner buffet.