Varadero is great place to go to relax on beaches and enjoy magnificent sunsets. There’s some great activities near by and an upbeat nightlife if you head into town. Whether you are staying on an all inclusive resort, or you’re travelling on your own, here are some useful tips I wish I had known before I got off the plane.
1. Change your money at the Varadero Airport.
The airport has lower exchange rates than the resorts. If you want to get the most bang for your buck – change your money at the airport when you arrive. The kiosk is located in the Departures area, so you will need to go through customs and pick up your luggage before you can go exchange those dollars. Cuba actually uses two currencies (both confusingly called pesos). I’m not going to get into the explanation as to why that is, but suffice to say you only need to concern yourself with CUCs – this is the tourist currency.
When exchanging your money, make sure that you only change as much money as you think you will need. If you change too much, you’ll end up having to pay fees again to change it back! If you are staying at a resort, and you happen to run out, you will be able to change more at the front desk, just at a slightly higher rate.
Make sure you don’t leave the Cuba with any significant amount CUCs left in your pocket unless you’re planning on going back soon! CUCs are not internationally traded so you wont be able to exchange it at home. There’s a small handful of shops in the airport where you can spend those left over pesos if you don’t want to change them back. Rum and cigars anyone?
One last thing worth noting is that you will also need to save 25 CUC for the departure tax. If you are flying with a tour, this is usually included – but be sure to double check as the departure tax is only accepted in cash.
2. There are many easy ways to get around.
There are lots of great ways to get around Varadero, and between towns and cities. If you’re travelling between your resort and downtown Varadero your best options are to take the bus or take a taxi. The Varedero Beach Tour bus is a double decker that runs along the main road and into town. It costs 5 CUC per person and that lets you hop on and off it as much as want for the entire day, so make sure you keep your ticket. Watch out if your sitting on the top because some of the trees hang very low. My husband nearly got decked in the face (thank you to the kind man who yanked him out of the way just in time)!
The taxis are also a great way to get around. You may already know the Cuba is famous for its vintage cars, and most of taxi drivers are more than happy to tell you all about their car. Many of them have been in their family for years. Always negotiate your fare in advance, and make sure the price they’re quoting is for all the members of your group. Riding in a vintage car will cost you more than a regular taxi, but it is a cool experience.
There’s also cocotaxis and horse-drawn carriages that you can take around town. Personally, I no longer pay for or utilize in any way, transportation or entertainment involving the exploitation of animals in any way.
Another option is renting a car. It is an amazing way to see the countryside and offers you great freedom in getting around. It’s worth noting that most of the cars are standards, so this may not be a great option for you if you are not comfortable driving stick.
If you do decide to rent a car, make sure you rent from a company that offers good insurance, and make sure you examine the car thoroughly before leaving with it, as you can be held liable for any damages. Be cautious driving, and its best to avoid driving at night. If you are in an accident, make sure you report it and be aware that you can be detained. You will not be allowed to leave the country with any outstanding offences.
3. Planning on going on any of the excursions offered by your resort? Research them before you go, but wait to book them until you’re on site.
We made the mistake of booking our excursions ahead of time, because we thought it would be cheaper and ensure that our spots were reserved. Bad idea! They were non-refundable, and turned out to be more expensive than they would have been if we had waited.Due to a serious knee injury that I got just days before we left, we ended up having to cancel one of our more expensive tours at the last minute. Luckily enough, they willingly exchanged it for us, however we still ended up losing money as the new excursion was at a significantly lesser value. On that note:
4. Consider an independent tour guide.
Excursions from the major tourist companies are usually way more expensive than hiring a local guide.The excursion we cancelled was the day trip we had planned to go to Havana. At the time, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to walk the amount needed during the day trip, especially during a group tour where I couldn’t control the pace. Towards the end of the trip I was recovered enough to walk around without my crutches.
Through a serious of serendipitous events we met Harley, a terrific tour guide who for a very reasonable price picked us up at our resort in a vintage car, drove us into Havana and gave us a personalized tour. He gave us an amazing inside perspective on Cuba and showed us to an excellent paladar for lunch. In the spare time we had left, he even showed us around his hometown of Matanzas, before dropping us off at the airport in time for our flight home.
Just remember, if you’re going to hire an independent tour guide, make sure you find someone who you can trust. Referrals from other travellers can be a great way to find someone, but always be cautious especially when allowing someone you don’t know to drive you off resort. (see # 10)
5. Give yourself time to relax.
Don’t overstuff your schedule. There’s more to do than you might think, and if you try and do everything your going to tire yourself out! When possible I like doing one day on and one day off. That is, one day where I run around actively seeing and doing things, and one day off to relax and enjoy my surroundings. Splash around on Varadero beach. Spend some time lounging and watching the incredibly beautiful sunset. Don’t get caught up in a whirlwind blur that you wont remember. It really sucks when the only memories you’re left with are a handful of instagram posts. Take the time to be present.
6. If you are staying at a resort, know that a 5 star resort in Cuba is not the same as a 5 Star in other places.
Do your research and adjust your expectations. You’ll have a great time, as long as you understand that the facilities are not going to be the same as what you would get at a Trump Hotel. That said, the service might be! It’s been my experience that the staff really do go above and beyond to make sure you have an amazing time.
We were given a bungalow room with an ocean view at the opposite end of where we checked in. I had been on crutches all day because of my knee injury and my arms were killing me. Even though it was against the hotel’s rules, the bellhop insisted that I sit on the cart with our luggage so that he could push me to the room. It was super thoughtful and made my day. Later in the week he even snuck my husband into the kitchen and got one of his buddies to make us some food, late in the evening when all the food options were closed. We were both amazed at his kindness.
Bottom line is you will meet wonderful people wherever you go. Be kind and tip well for good service.
7. Go off resort.
I mean it! As tempting as it is to lounge around on that wonderful beach you’ve paid for, at very least make sure to take some time to go into town. There’s some great attractions to check out, even if you just head into Varadero. From taking a leisurely stroll or paddleboat ride through Parque Josone, to enjoying the terrific live music and nightlife, there are so many fun places you don’t want to miss.
8. Go to the travel clinic a few weeks before you leave on your trip.
I know so many people who think that they don’t need any shots or medications to go to Cuba. I’ve also seen and heard just as many stories of people getting quite ill because they didn’t do their research and properly prepare themselves. I know it sucks getting shots and spending money on medication you probably wont need, but the bottom line here is that you always need to prioritize your health above everything else.
The more I travel, the cheaper the doctor visits gets. That’s because most vaccinations last at least several years, making them a fairly solid investment for your next trip.In addition to your health, some countries also have vaccination requirements.
9. Figure out how to tip.
This is quite a controversial subject once you get into it, and there have been many fantastic articles written on the subject. Know where you stand on this before you go, because it will come up again and again. I’m a big believer in being kind and tipping well, especially for exceptional service.
10. Trust your Gut.
Cuba is very safe country. That said, you should keep an eye on your belongings, and pay special attention to pickpockets and thieves especially in crowded tourist areas, such as Old Havana. And as always, whether you are at home or abroad, always exercise caution, pay attention to your surroundings and trust your instincts.
What do you think? Have I missed any key tips for travelling to Varadero?