Cuba: Havana to Varadero
Hey! So after a month off from blogging I am back to tell you about Cuba including my top tips, info on where we stayed and a photo look book of our trip! For those that follow me on insta you will be aware that we went for a week in May, spending two nights in Havana and five nights in Varadero.
We flew with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick with the flight time of 9 hours (which I know is a long flight for a week) but thankfully I suffered no jet lag. We flew premium on the way out and after a stop off in the VA Clubhouse for breakfast and a few pre-flight cocktails, I then got myself comfortable on board with 4 seats to myself – win! I can’t fault the flights at all – both outbound and coming home all of the staff were so lovely, attentive and helpful.
In Havana we stayed at Loft Habana (Havana), a small complex of apartments with a rooftop restaurant in Old Havana, overlooking the sea. The apartments, were very modern by Cuban standards and each contained a kitchen, terrace, mezzanine bedroom/ bathroom and lounge with TV – perfect as a base for a couple of days. Our apartment was clean and fresh with Nespresso machine, toiletries and nice quality bedding and towels. The public areas were equally as clean, modern and fresh with a nod to classic Havana.
The only minor downside was that the plumbing left a little to be desired here. When Dave attempted to flush away a tissue (always one to get a sniffle from the plane), the toilet overflowed all over the bathroom floor – it was clean water, but still! Continuing the questionable plumbing theme, the shower also had a tendency to flood the bathroom which was a little annoying! That said, I would definitely recommend these apartments as they were great value for money and your truly in the heart of old Havana. SIDE NOTE: The WIFI code for the intermittent Cuban wifi is Blue1234 on the Alcatel network (because they are very reluctant to give it to you haha.)
Food & Drink:
Paladar Los Mercaderes: If you want a traditional Cuban meal in a lovely setting then this is the place to head. Mercaderes does sit quite high on Tripadviser and I can definitely see why. The place is filled with quirky interiors, gorgeous tiles and great food. We went here for dinner on our last evening in Havana and it had a great atmosphere with a local guitarist and violist duo performing acoustic songs that filled the candle lit room. I can’t recommend this family run restaurant enough for anyone who wants to experience a slice of real Havana. (Click for: Paladar Los Mercaderes)
Paladar Los Mercaderes
Saratoga Hotel: We popped into here while walking around Havana for lunch and cocktails at the roof top pool. It didn’t disappoint with really good food at reasonable prices and offered a great view over the city. However, the real show stopper in this hotel is the lobby bar, which has towering palms, checkered floors and walls adorned with topical murals. Since re-watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians I think this is where they stayed! (Click for: Saratoga Hotel)
Jardin Del Eden: This unsuspecting building was one of the most beautiful I saw on our whole trip and we literally stumbled upon it whilst looking for a bank (more to come on that later!). They also have a roof terrace bar up the winding stairs that was the perfect cool vista away from the warm bustling streets below. I can’t speak for the food as we only had a pitstop drink, however the interiors here make it definitely worth a visit for a drink. (Click for: Jardin Del Eden)
Jardin Del Eden
Top Tips For Havana:
Money: You can’t use a debit card in Cuba and there is limited acceptance of credit cards so you need to take your own currency with you and exchange it into the Cuban Convertible (CUC) upon arrival into Cuba. There are several hotels and a couple of banks that offer currency exchange, as well as the airports and from our experience, they were very particular about which notes they would accept – any note which was in any way damaged or written on wasn’t accepted! We also got the best conversion rate in the airport and the bank. However only exchange as much money as you think you will need – when travelling home from Havana Airport, they had no Pound Stirling to exchange our CUCs back to. This is a frequent issue apparently so if they don’t have any, ask them to exchange to Euros instead, rather than try and spend it all on the very limited offering in the airport like we did haha!
Classic Cars Trip: There are so many classic American cars situated around the whole of Havana. We didn’t pre-book a trip we simply asked at the taxi rank how much it would be for a tour around Havana and were greeted with numerous offers and the start of a bidding war to get our custom. A one hour tour cost us just 30 CUC (£20) in a classic pink impala convertible and the driver was wonderful. He took us to all the main sites, filled us in on local traditions and stories and also stopped at numerous spots to get out and take photos. I can’t recommend this enough – especially since many of the pre-booked tours advertised online cost up to 5 times more had we booked before we travelled.
Impala Car Tour
The Locals: The locals were friendly and attempted to embrace tourism. However, there are very few shops in Havana (only local markets and one supermarket) so if you can find room in your suitcase, take some sweets and pens for the children.
Transfers: If like us your planning your own trip, the transfer from Havana airport to Havana city is easy as the airport has a taxi rank with both modern and classic cars available. However, if you are planning on splitting your trip between two area I would recommend you book a coach transfer in advance between the different areas. We were not that organised and with the WiFi so intermittent (and 3G/4G non existent) we missed the opportunity to book a coach to Varadero. Instead we had to get a taxi for the 2 hour journey with two options of a modern air conditioned car for 130 CUC one way or 80 CUC for a classic car. We chose the classic for the experience however it doesn’t offer a great deal of comfort. The journey took us about 2 hours 45 mins, which included a stop at Matanza to view the breathtaking bridges and get refreshments. The transfer back to Havana for the airport was in fact the same price in a modern car, so i’d suggest you have a price in mind and agree it in advance with the driver than go based on the metered fare.
Classic Car Transfer
While in Varadero we stayed at Ocean Vista Azul by H10 Hotels and has to be one of the best hotels I have stayed in. This hotel is situated on the beach about a 10 min taxi from Varadero itself with two pools, two private beaches, six restaurants, seven bars and a spa. We were booked into a Royal Master Suite overlooking the sea on the H10 Privilege package. The room was amazing, with an open plan lounge/ dining area, large super king bedroom, two spacious bathrooms, an outdoor shower room (yet still private!), a dressing room and a wrap around balcony. The suite was so well equipped with multiple televisions, wet room and Jacuzzi bath you almost didn’t have to leave – especially since we had our own butler haha.
Royal Master Suite
I would say that if you’re planning to stay here then it is well worth selecting the privilege package. In addition to an upgraded room you get so many more perks such as access to the privilege lounge bar from which you can select any premium international spirits, wines and beers (in comparison to locally produced alcohol only in other bars), as well as the privilege restaurant which serves an a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner (including steaks and lobster). There are also added touches such as being able to make reservations at the other restaurants (other guests have to queue and wait for availability), better spa rates and additional WiFi tokens.
The staff here could not do enough for you especially the amazing bar staff in the privilege lounge who were constantly attentive (without being overbearing or intrusive). They were also very willing to make new and different cocktails as per your request using any of the Premium spirits on offer, and this level of attentiveness was the same in the restaurants where staff would often go above and beyond to accommodate peoples dietary requirements and requests to go off piste from the items on the menus! To sum up, this was definitely a resort where your every need was catered for, and always with a smile. I don’t like to feel like I am constantly being waited on or expected to tip every time i’m served a drink, which was nice about the relaxed atmosphere here.
Things To Do:
In Varadero there is not really much to do. There are a couple of very small markets with the usual souvenirs as well as few bars and restaurants but nothing by comparison to most tourist resorts. Varadero is very much a base for the big luxury resort style hotels that most people base themselves at all week (with the exception of handful of people we met that had gone on a day trip to Havana). This is admittedly what we did for our 5 days here, but after a busy 2 days seeing the sights in Havana and a hectic run up to the holiday it was nice to just relax with lazy pool days, beach strolls and good food and drink. That is what holidays are for right?
… and relax!
Top Tips For Varadero:
Hotel: I would say if are willing to do a little extra work, book the hotel direct yourself. We booked via the H10 website and got a great 20% promo discount. Sign up to their mailing list as they always have great deals on and we ended up with one of the resorts best suites and privilege perks for 5 days for less than half the cost of a a week in a standard room with no access to the privilege services through a travel agent.
Entertainment: If your not a fan of your own company or don’t like making friends round the pool (I am sure sometimes Dave wishes I wouldn’t!), then I would suggest you book excursions and trips to fill your time. Five days of chilling was enough for me as I’m constantly busy, but many people have two weeks in these resorts! In that scenario I would definitely need to take advantage of the trips and classes offered by the hotel.
So that is my Cuba run down! All in all I would definitely recommend Cuba and would say that time is of the essence with big changes starting to happen in the last couple of year and more to come in the near future as they really look to embrace tourism. However I would also remind people that this is very different to many other Caribbean Islands and in the sense of popular culture, imports and technology, Cuba is still very much still in the early stages and isn’t for everyone.