....   just after 1:00 in the afternoon when we departed Port Alberni. We were hoping to catch the 3:15 Ferry, sailing from Nanaimo to Vancouver. While on the ferry we ran into a friend of my fathers, who offered to give us a ride to the Airport. As we were now 2hrs. ahead of schedule we decided to take the local transit for a change and also to kill some time. It was 7:00pm when the city bus pulled up to the front doors of the Vancouver International Airport. We still had another 90 minutes to wait before we could sign in with the travel agency. After, we found a nice, quiet restaurant to relax in for the next 4hrs. Our Flight left right on time 12:32am, which was nice, but the way they pack you in.(Model A330 Airbus)
It felt like you were in a Sardine can, no elbow or leg room. I'm 5'10' and weigh appox. 155lbs, I was not comfortable at all. I highly recommend if you're over 6' 4'' to pay the extra and go first class. [*]
Our plane touched down in Cuba, 30 minutes ahead of schedule, during a Tropical rainstorm. We got through customs with no problems, except for the guy ahead of us lost his Hustler Magazine. (No pornographic material is allowed in Cuba including books and Magazines)
Outside the front doors of the Varadero Airport was a variety of buses and people holding up signs of different hotels. It wasn't long before we figured out which bus to take. As soon we boarded we were offered drinks at $2.00 each. It was another 90minutes before the bus finally got moving. The bus pulled up to the "Iberstar Tainos"[*}
which was the hotel we were going to be staying at, just before noon. We were greeted by friendly bell boys who helped us with our luggage. The front desk clerk gives you a plastic green bracelet for identification as to what hotel you are staying at. Each hotel uses a different color. Once we had signed in, it was just past 12:00 in the afternoon. The rooms weren't going to be ready until 2:30 at the earliest. Luckily, the hotel had a locked room where you can store your luggage. As we wandered around the hotel grounds [*] the flash of the Lightening and the boom of the Thunder was all around us. The rain was coming down in buckets and was starting to run into the front lobby Our room was finally ready at 3:30 in the afternoon..[*1][*2]
Boy, we were both glad to get our things unpacked and lay down for a while. The girl at the front desk noticed it was Melissa's birthday that day when she was looking over our passports. [*]
She gave us a room in one of the small building's, rather than staying in the main hotel. We had a nice quiet room on the [*]
ground floor facing away from the pool [*]
just off to the side of the main part of the hotel. It didn't take us long before we were walking bare foot on the warm, white sandy beach that we had traveled so far to see. It was beautiful miles of nice white sand with these little sun shelters all over the place, the roofs made from palm leaves. The weather was not cooperating 100% the rain would come and go in spurts; hopefully it will be brighter tomorrow. Due to all the days traveling, both of our appetites were far from normal. All we felt like eating was little bits of fruit and the odd bun. After a late lunch we were walking around the hotel and ran into two guys from Calgary Alberta, (John, Greg).
Mel and I stopped and chatted with them for a while. It was not long after that John mentioned he had worked for Ultra Mechanics in 1991 at Jasper Park Lodge. I also worked for Ultra Mechanics at that same time and place. I then recognized John as the welder I worked with for 3 months just before Melissa and I moved from Jasper to Port Alberni B.C. (Oh! What a small world it is)
We talked for a while longer before leaving to catch up with our Travel Rep. From Air Tranat to find out about some of the tours offered in Varadero. After that it was off for a lite dinner and then a stroll down the beach towards the hotel where Melissa's brother and sister in-law had stayed a few years prior. After that, it was off to bed.
We got up that morning thinking of renting a Scooter for the day and driving into the town of Varadero. But, the weather looked like rain at any moment, so we decided to go for a walk on the road in front of the hotel and visit the caves that were shown on the map that our travel rep gave to us the night before. A few kilometers away we found the first cave[*]
. You could see it easily from the main road. There was a Cuban man sitting in an old lawn chair beside the gate that blocked the entrance to the cave. We tried to ask him if we could go in for a look. He spoke in Spanish, and by what we could figure out, he wasn't in charge of taking anyone inside and to come back later. About 300 meters further on down the road we came across a small shelter beside a trail leading into some thick, tropical brush. There was no one around so we went in to investigate. The trail started by winding itself through a cool looking [*1][*2]
Cactus type forest and it wasn't long before we came across limestone formations and then cave entrances. I was the first one to go into the cave, I could see some diffused sunlight coming in from a skylight ahead which partially lit up a large room. The cave was muggy inside with a sour smell. All of a sudden something tapped me on the head. Then I could hear fluttering all round me [*]
. I figured out real fast that I had disturbed a bunch of bats and they weren't very happy with my presence. As you might have guessed I needn't spend a great deal of time in this cave. Once outside we followed the trail over some rough karsts. I could smell cigarette smoke coming from up ahead. It was 3 young Cubans who had just finished showing some German tourists the Cave entrances in the area. Where we stopped to talk to the locals we noticed that there was a human skeleton in the fetal position, buried on the surface at the entrance of the cave [*]
I took a few pictures and then one of the locals took us to other cave entrances, without skeletons, which were close by. Then he guided us back to the main road[*]
We traded coins with each other, I gave him a Canadian 2 dollar coin, he gave me a Cuban 3 pesos coin. He then pointed towards his shoes to show me the condition that they were in. The soles looked like they were just about to fall off. He then pointed towards my shoes, which were my stinky old runners(these were my only pair of shoes at the time).
We were informed before coming to Cuba that the Cuban people on the most part were poor and things like shoes were a luxury to them. I told him I was really sorry that I could not give him my only pair of shoes, but I would return in two days with a brand new pair of shoes for him. We made arrangements to meet back at the same spot at 11:00 Thursday morning. That would give Mel and I enough time to go to Varadero to find a pair. Instead of walking back to the hotel via the road, we noticed on the map it was possible to take the beach.[*1][*2]
Back at the hotel we had a bite to eat and decided to head into Varadero that day anyways. There was no bus scheduled to follow, so to catch a bus in Cuba whether you're at a Bus stop or not, you were to wave money or stick your hand up at the driver as they were coming up to you. You did not have to wait at a bus stop as we found out. When we got down to the highway that led into Varadero there was a couple standing at the Bus stop. We asked how long they had been waiting and they replied about 10 minutes or so. The buses ran about 30 to 40 minutes apart, depending, so we decided to walk down the highway and just flag a bus down when we saw one approaching. We hadn't walked more than 200meters down the road before we could see a small bus approaching. It passed right by the couple at the bus stop but I waved the bills at him and to my surprise, he stopped for us and we were in Varadero in no time at all. The first thing we noticed was that the Cuban people were very talented craftsmen. The wood and bone carvings are incredible and the prices are quite reasonable. We went into the shoe store and noticed that the prices were the same if not more expensive than in Canada and in American dollars too. I guess when we were both standing on one of the busy street corners, wondering where to find a cheap shoe store look on our faces, a Cuban called Tony came up to us and said we looked lost, and was there anything he could do to help us. We accepted his services and he was able to find us a shoe store with a nice pair of boots for our cave friend and a nice pair of sandals for myself. I gave him 5 dollars for being so helpful to us, and then it was off to catch a bus to head back to our hotel. We had a lite supper that night, our appetite still hadn't come back to normal yet, I guess it must have something to do with the heat. That night we went to the nightly entertainment that the hotel puts on for all of the guests. That night it was called Latino Nite. This was different styles of Latin dancing. Before the dancing started they did a few short comedy skits on different countries from around the world. One we liked was when they pretended to be two Canadians. They were on stage shivering and complaining about how cold it was. They went to take a leak and both were peeing out ice cubes. Another one that was good was two Middle Easterners on stage shooting machine guns at each other. All of a sudden an alarm rings and they both stop everything to start praying. Afterward they went back to shooting at each other. We watched a bit of the dancing before packing it in at 11:00.
The stomach was growling for the first time which was a good sign. After a large breakfast we went down to the beach [*]
to enjoy the view and to go for a splash in the ocean. Melissa did some aerobics [*]
with some of the guests and hotel exercise staff. I was sweating just watching them. After lunch we signed up to go on a tour called the "Jungle Tour". Each couple was given a SeaDoo to drive around on. At the Marina where we started from, was a small spider Monkey on a collar and leash. Melissa loves monkeys and I guess didn't see the sign saying " Warning Monkey Bites" because, when she went to pet him right away, it then climbed onto her head and ripped off her sunglasses and took off with them in his mouth. It was quite the chore to get her glasses back without getting bitten by our furry friend. We eventually got the glasses back, but it had some nice chew marks on both earpieces. Once we got all suited up and were given the basic do's and don'ts, we followed the guide, always keeping a 30 meter distance between each SeaDoo. This was for safety reasons. After cruising around the bay for a bit we changed drivers. It was now the women's turn to take control of the wheel and scare the men; they then guided us into a Mangrove forest, [*]
where they had set up a small Zoo of local birds and creatures. [*]
If you want, they even let you pick up and handle a small 4ft crocodile for pictures[*]
. Then it was back to the SeaDoos and off to the marina where we had started from. The round trip takes about 90 minutes and costs $35.00 American for each and goes Rain or Shine. The guides were quite entertaining and the trip is worth the money if you have never done any thing like it before. (Tip: Try to go on a nice day. Some novice drivers would not enjoy the trip during a heavy wind or rain storm. )
Back at the hotel we relaxed for a while before heading out for dinner. After dinner we went next door to see what the entertainment was for the night. It started off by one of the dancers giving out Salsa lesson to the guests; Melissa and I went up to give it a try. I lasted for about 5 minutes before heading back to my chair. I was way to stiff for that shit.( The Salsa instructor said I danced like a plastic cup, he was right.)
Melissa was a natural so she stayed up for the duration. After that, a singer came onto the stage. He called himself Eddy Wally. He had quite a following; the crowd was more fun to watch than listening to his Polka songs. We stayed through most of the show, watching and laughing at the crowd do their thing until it was off to our room to pack it in for another day.
We both had gotten our full appetite back and we ate a large breakfast to start off the day. To wear off some of the breakfast, we walked around for a bit and took some pictures of the[*]
within the hotel grounds.[*]
Today we were to meet up with our Cuban friend from the cave and give him his new pair of boots. The hotel next door to us (Beach's Varadero)
had Scooters for rent by the hour or day. It was a much better deal to rent for 24hrs for $30 than $9.00/hr. So off we went, Melissa hanging on to the back of me as we putted down the road to where we were supposed to meet up with our cave friend. He was not to be found anywhere, but we were a little early so we figured we would putt to the end of the Varadero Peninsula. On the map we were given, it showed there being a small Marina and restaurant at the end of the road. [*]
There was also a lot of fresh construction going on too. It looked like a large hotel was getting built at the far end of the peninsula. On the way back we stopped on the road and walked into the caves, just to see if we could find the local, but unfortunately no sign of him. Once back at the road we ran into a guide who wanted to give us a guided tour for a charge of $3.00each. We explained to him that a Cuban had given us a tour two days earlier and we were back to thank him. The guide looked puzzled and said he was the only one who was supposed to guide people into these caves. Ooops that was probably why we couldn't find him. The guide was not there a few days earlier and must have scared him off. Oh well, I guess I'll have to find another Cuban who needs shoes. We got back on the Scooter and decided to pay the $5.00 each to go into the Lagoon Mangon Ecological Reserve. This Reserve was supposed to be the very first Salt Mine in production, way back in the days of Christopher Columbus. The first part of the park you walk down an asphalt road, 100 meters inside the park on your right side, you will see a very large 500 yr old Cactus.[*]
I would say the biggest I have seen[*]
. Just another 150 meters down the road you come across what looks like a muddy puddle with sticks sticking out. [*]
This is where we assumed the salt mine was, but we are not quite sure how they extracted the salt, or perhaps it was in its pure form when the Lagoon Mangon dried up? On the left side of the Lagoon was some natural beach [*]
with some prickly friends just above the tide line [*]
. It was getting quite hot out, so it was back to the Scooter to get moving so we could get a breeze to cool us down. While driving back to the hotel we noticed that the gate was open on the first cave we tried to visit a few days earlier. We pulled over to check it out. The guides name was Umverto and for $3.00 each he would take us on a guided tour of[*]
"Ambrosio Cave". [(Ambrosio Cave)] click to read trip report.
Umverto mentioned to us that the Skeleton that we had seen at the other cave was a Cuban Native that died 2543 years ago and was laid down in the fetal position with its head pointing north and its feet pointing south.[*]
This was supposed to be the way the natives buried there dead back in those times. Once we left Ambrosio Cave we still had enough time to putt down the highway and have a look at the old Dupont Mansion which was built for the original Dupont family as a vacation home. The Cubans took control of it when the United States closed its doors. They used it as a luxury hotel, but now is a part of the golf coarse. Next door is Varadero's largest shopping mall called "Plaza Americana". The mall is very clean and has lots to offer, but beware of the prices of the souvenir's. They are a fair bit higher than what you would pay in the small stores in Varadero. Also when buying multiple items "Keep Track Of The TOTAL Cost Of All Items" The Cubans don't give any receipts and some of them unfortunately have a habit of tacking on an extra $5.00 onto your total bill, hoping you're not going to notice. This never happened to us that I know of, but we did hear of these instances happening at different places. [*]
Back at the hotel we were all hot and sweaty,[*1][*2]
so it was off to the beach for a dip in the ocean.[*]
The wind was blowing fairly strong so we let the waves knock us around for a bit. After having a nice dinner that evening, it was time to check out the nightly entertainment. If I only knew what was planned for that nights show, I would have probably stayed in my hotel room. It was worth a good laugh for Melissa. It started with a girl from the audience pretending she was a princess sitting on her throne, and there were many fine bachelors out willing to fight for her hand. I was chosen to go up on stage and so were 7 other suckers (Males)
. We were told we had to prove our worthiness to the Princess by performing certain tasks. The first one was to do the Limbo. The ones who made it through this got to go onto the next stage. We had to sing a silly song and wiggle our hips to the music. This one was quite embarassing, but hey, I didn't know anyone there, except for John, and he was up on stage with me. We all sang and did the dance while thinking, "what are they going to make us do next?" Well we had to sing the same song as before but with a mouthful of water. This was the last stage I got to, thank god. The four who moved onto the final stage had to do a sexy dance with one of the female dancers and the one who the audience liked the most won the contest. After all that excitement it was time to hit the sack.
This was a relax day for both of us.[*]
The weather at 7:30 was overcast and[*]
Mel was still snoring her head off so I decided to go for a run down the beach before it got too muggy out. When I got back we both went for a nice fruit breakfast and a stroll down the beach towards the rocky point to the left. At 11:15 we met up with our travel rep, Elise, to make arrangements to go on the Jeep Safari Tour for the next day. We then just relaxed and ate for the rest of the day.[*]
Both of us were up early getting prepared for the days adventure. The bus picked us up at 9:00 sharp and drove to a few other hotels to pick up more guests who were also going on the Jeep Safari. Finally the bus pulled up to a large hotel in Varadero where we could see a fleet of Suzuki Vitara's parked off to the side. Our guides for the Jeep safari were Ricardo and 'Casanova'. They first informed us on the days adventure and then assigned four people per jeep. While at our hotel we had gotten to know this younger couple from Vancouver, so Steve [*]
and Darlene. They were also on the Jeep Safari, we asked them if they would like to pair up with us. This made it nice because we could all understand each other. Steve and I took turns doing the driving. The first leg of the journey, we were taken through a [*]
Cuban Sugar Cane field. We stopped along side the road to sample the sugar cane[*]
in its natural form. It had a very sweet, fruity taste to it. Then it was off to a typical Cuban town where one could get a refreshment and go to the bathroom (For a $1.00)
. While sitting there you could get a good sense of how the Cuban people lived. You could see the rundown houses. The children playing with planks of wood turned into skateboards. The poverty was all around you, but the people were all happy, the children were all smiling. Here is where you could feel how lucky we really are, and see that the things we take for granted means so much to others. Once we left the Village, we were guided down some 4X4 roads through some scenic Cuban countryside[*]
. When we got back on to a main road we stopped at a Natural Spring.[*]
They had made it possible for tourists to snorkel in it. You are able to rent snorkel and flippers at the entrance of the spring for $3.00 a set. The entrance was a large sinkhole in lush tropical jungle approx. 40 meters across and 15 meters to the water line. They had built a wooden staircase that took you down to the water line. This was the first time either one of us had swam in a Cave so this was quite interesting for both of us. The water was incredibly clear with a vivid blue color.[*]
I was able to try out my underwater camera for the first time hoping for at least one half decent shot. We snorkeled around for as long as possible before having to head onto the next stop on this tour. The next adventure of the tour took us to the mouth of a large tropical river just on the outskirts of the Cuban Town of Matanzas. Here each group was given a Zodiac boat with a 25hrsp. Motor to power us upstream for 12kms. [*]
The river was at the bottom of a deep gorge that was carved out of limestone [*]
, but now covered in heavy tropical vegetation. It was quite beautiful. At a spot upstream we all stopped and tied the rafts together, so anyone who wanted to, could go for a dip in the river. A few of us went in while the guides told stories of the Crocodiles and Piranha's in the area.(Only Kidding)
Swimming in this river was a little different, because where I'm from the surface layer of the water is usually the warmest and the further down you dive the cooler it gets. Not in this case, the top layer was the cool layer and your feet were in the bathtub layer. I think it must have something to do with the tide bringing in the cool surface layer. After the dip in the river and the guides being jokers, we travel upstream for a few more kms.[*]
, before reaching our final destination. This was suppose to be a typical Cuban Ranch and was the place where we were stopping for lunch. The food here was excellent and their potato chips were out of this world. While you were eating you also had the choice of having 4 Cuban Musicians sing local music for you.(Of coarse Melissa had to get up and dance with them too)
After lunch [*]
Melissa, Darlene [*]
and Steve went for a short Horseback ride which was also part of the tour package. I decided just to take pictures of them on the Horses and a few shots of the[*]
large palm trees that were along side the riverbank[*]
. We also had to get hero shots riding the [*]
Big Black Bull [*]
that was on the Ranch. (Warning do not try to pet the Bull when the owner isn't around. John tried and the Bull almost speared him.)
Now it was time to head back to the hotel where we started from that morning. We all got into Suzuki's that were drivin by another group doing the trip in the opposite direction. It was about 60 minutes before we finally arrived in Varadero. The Jeep Safari cost $79.00 per person and is well worth it. After the day is done you will have fond memories that will last a lifetime. Back at the hotel we washed up and had a large dinner then crashed for the evening.
This was our last full day in Cuba and also the sunniest[*]
, so we decided to go into Varadero to do some last minute shopping. We were able to find the things we were looking for after visiting most of the smaller outlets, and at a good price too. The Cuban people like to barter so if you're not happy with the price or are buying more than one of the same item, make them a deal. They'll Hum… and Arhh… a bit but if your price is reasonable enough they'll accept your offer. In the afternoon we went down to the[*]
beach to relax and hopefully get a bit of color to take back with us. Melissa did most of the relaxing while I ran around finishing off my roll of film[*1][*2]
. That evening after dinner, the nightly entertainment was to pick a Miss Iberostar from one of the female guests of the hotel. Melissa decided as it was our last day here she would volunteer and become one of the Miss Iberostar contestants. As most of the Canadians were leaving the next day, we all sat together in a large group, close to the stage, so we could all cheer on Melissa when it became her turn. There were four girls chosen from four different countries to go up on stage to prove their worthiness of gaining the Miss Iberostar title. The first part of the contest was each girl had to do a sexy walk across the stage, next each girl had to run around the audience and try to kiss as many guys as possible, in under one minute. This is where Melissa had a slight advantage. When it was her turn to run and do some kissing, all of us from Canada lined up so Melissa could get 10 kisses really fast. It worked, she was able to win that part of the contest. She also won the next contest by being the closest to guessing the age of a guy who was chosen to go up while they were all blindfolded. They were only allowed to touch and feel him, then they were to guess his age. The last part of the contest all the girls had to take part in a small skit, which was embarrassing for them, but funny for the audience to watch. Then it was up to a panel of four judges to decide who was to wear the crown of Miss Iberostar Dec 2000. It was my beauty Melissa who won the judges hearts, and for that, she won a free t-shirt and a certificate stating her accomplishment. We socialized for a while after the contest was over, then said our goodbye's to the people we had meet over the past week. Off to the hotel room to pack for the long journey back to the homestead.
The Wake up call came at 5:40 so we would have plenty of time to have a shower and small breakfast before boarding the bus at 6:45am..We arrived at the Varadero Airport by 7:20 and were told the plane would be leaving 1 hour behind schedule. That means we have to sit for 4.5 hours before we even depart from Cuba. I think this is going to be a very long day….
I hope you enjoyed reading our adventures from abroad. This was our first trip south in over 11 years and was well worth it. I would highly recommend Cuba as a great place for a winter get away. The people are all very friendly and are extremely fond of Canadians. The crime rate is almost nil due to the stiff jail sentences for first time offeners and you can find some great bargains if you're into crafts.
Cheers: Quagger ( AKA ) Craig Wagnell