Saturday, May 6, 2017

¡Hola! Cuba! ~ 3

The first two posts from this series are HERE and HERE

In February 2017, I escaped the island of Japan to visit another island -- Cuba, specifically, the beach town of Varadero. While I stayed mainly inside the resort hotel, Club Kawama, my explorer-self ventured out to the town on two different days.

Varadero town is just one long strip of a road with markets, restaurants, and local shops lining each side. I took a lot of photos while walking about four hours out and back. Please enjoy the pics.

I love signs cause they're like art.

The aforementioned hotel in the previous sign.

Off the main strip were smaller side streets, all which led to the beach or coast. Heaven, no?


Cubans are given rations for certain food items. This shop is one where locals can pick up rationed items.

Street corners all had these lovely pyramids informing us as to the street and side roads. Loved them!


The art below was attached to a chain link fence and the entire artwork was made of metal!


This is one of the many stops for the tourist bus which takes you up and down the Varadero peninsula. It costs 5 pesos for the whole day, but you can get on and off at any time. I took it and will be sure to post pics from that on another day.

Older Cubans seem to love their rocking chairs. Almost every house in town had a rocker sitting out front. I loved the wood carvings...

This is my favorite photo I took on the trip. 
The entire reason I wanted to go for a walk was to visit the only chocolate factory on the island (that I knew of...) the Casa Del Chocolate!! =^_^=

It's a little known fact that cats (well, perhaps only this cutenekko) love chocolate. According to the information inside the shop, this factory was created with a grant from the government. Of course I ordered several individual chocolates to sample. The white milky one was my favorite...

I had to eat those quickly...they melted pretty darn fast!!
After the 2.5 hours it took to reach the chocolate house, I headed back, running into a spectacular stone church, in which the wedding couple from the previous post had gotten married. According to Google, this is the Catholic church "Iglesia Santa Elvira" (see TRIPADVISOR). I didn't know the mistress of the dark was Catholic!
Image result for Elvira
Me? Why yes daah-ling, I'm Catholic. All the good ones are! (courtesy of Twitter)
All right, this is the real Elvira....church.


Spanish architecture was all over the town. Many had been converted into shops (first floor) and apartments (upper floors).

Another Spanish-style hotel...love the coral peach color:

This memorial was along the main road. Unfortunately, all the information was in Spanish, so I could not read it...

Little known fact #2: I have a thing for cactus. When I was 15, my father drove our family around Arizona, Utah and Nevada and I got to see my first real cacti. It later influenced my high school art projects. The shape and simplicity of cacti are just beautiful to me. The cactus below was in front of a Spanish steak restaurant called El Toro. 


Vendors sold a mix of things in their shops along the road -- leather goods, such as purses and wallets (really well made), license plates, beads, clothes, hats, hammocks...and of course cigars. I avoided the cigar shops because I had a grand half-day tour while at a cigar club in Bangkok. Visit THIS PAGE to read about that experience....

I hope you enjoyed walking the streets with me in Varadero, Cuba. Visit again as I will post photographs from area which were seen from the vantage point of the open-air tourist bus. 

~ Enjoy walking!

INFORMATION

Cuba is located in the Caribbean, about 103 miles off the coast of Florida, USA. The island is a favorite winter destination for Canadians. It takes about 4 hours by plane from Toronto. 

Varadero is a famous beach resort area on the island. All-inclusive resorts are the norm here. Cost per night ranges from $80 ~ 300 USD per night. Visit Trivago to see hotels and prices. 

Safety: 
Very safe for women - only beware of pickpockets. When visiting the markets or vendors, haggle for a bargain. Cubans won't be offended if you walk away and are polite if you decline to buy anything.

High season:
November to April. Hurricanes in August to September.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

¡Hola! Cuba! ~ 2

See THIS POST for the start of this series on Cuba.

In February 2017, I took a week-long break from my work and studies to become a beach-bum in Varadero, Cuba. The destination was not my personal choice. My parents requested I join them, yet I thought many times about turning down the initial invitation due to my perceptions of the beach-pace being too slow from my normal explorer travel behavior. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Varadero's white beach and slow style.

The resort we stayed at was the all-inclusive, Club Kawama. Similar to a cruise, the resort included food, drinks, snacks and entertainment, all free for guests. On one day, a water ballet show was performed in the main pool by a team of incredibly fit men and women....



The group performed to a number of songs including BeyoncĂ©'s "Single Ladies" (left) 
and dance tracks (right). 

The biggest surprise was a foam party, also held at the main pool closest to the lobby. It seemed the adults enjoyed it more than the kids, as I saw a number of elderly men jump in and play with the foam and bubbles (laugh)....

The staff fire up the foam cannon!

Everyone loves a foam party!! (images added for privacy reasons)


After about three days, I had grown a bit tired of being on the resort and asked my parents if we could go out for a walk towards the town. This turned out to be one of two walking tours I took to enjoy the Cuban local scene. The first thing everyone notices once in Cuba are the cars; it's a vintage automobile lover's dream, and all can be ridden in too -- most Cubans rent them out as a taxi service. 

Every car you see above was available as a taxi service. The smaller one in the bottom right is the Cuban equivalent of the Thai "tuk-tuk", -- a small, three-seated scooter which  transports passengers short distances. 


On the way back from our walk, we were lucky enough to encounter a couple on their wedding day, complete with a ride in a convertible open-top 1958 Chev Impala....congrats to the lovely couple!

The bride was especially beautiful. My dad said she looked like a model. To the groom: Treat her right!!

For those who prefer slower modes of transportation, Cuba has some four-legged friends willing to help you. These horse-and-buggy drivers would shuttle tourists from the resort to some markets in town for a fee (hint: it's not cheap). We were warned by a staff member at our resort that the buggy drivers will quote "10 pesos" for the ride and later, when it's time to pay, change the story to "10 pesos for EACH passenger". For tourists, it's recommended you set the price accurately, up front. 

I didn't try the buggy ride because I enjoy using my own two feet when exploring; however, a number of couples and women used the buggy service and seemed to like the fresh air and slower pace of the horses trotting along the street. It certainly is a unique way to enjoy Cuba...

Notice the rubberized wheels? 

Near our resort was a large canal where the ocean runs through a boat marina. One day, a woman was out rowing. We noticed a group of Cubans on the other side of the bank cheering her on and yelling out encouraging words. Rowing is a big sport in Canada in the summer and we have created some great Olympic rowing teams in the past. I took some photos as it was really cool to see this sport is also in Cuba...

My dad thought she was likely an Olympic level athlete...she was powerful!

I hope you enjoyed some local sights from Varadero, Cuba. I will be sure to post more photos from the town walking tour I completed on another day. Be sure to stop by again soon.

~ Enjoy blue skies!

INFORMATION 

Varadero, Cuba is about 4 hours by airplane from Toronto. Get flights and times HERE (via SkyScanner; change home airport to one closest to you). 

Hotel Club Kawama site is HERE

Trip Advisor's things to see and do in Varadero, Cuba is HERE

Weather + Temperature: 
Sunny with low precipitation. Average temperature: 84 degrees F, or 29 C. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

¡Hola! Cuba!

I have traveled to 29 different countries in the world, predominately in Europe, North America and Asia. In February 2017, I had the honor of celebrating my 30th destination in Varadero, Cuba (via Trip Advisor). Varadero is home to a 13-mile long white sandy beach which has been listed by Trip Advisor as one of the "top beaches in the world" (2016). Cuba is a very popular holiday spot for Canadians and according to the statistics, 1.2 million Canucks visit the island each year (see LINK).

I joined my parents for a week long winter break and stayed at the oldest resort on the island -- Club Kawama (via Grande Caribe), which was founded as a gentleman's club in the early 1930's and currently runs as an all-inclusive beach-front resort hotel. It is the largest resort on Cuba, and the guests are typically from Canada, Germany or Russia (!!).

Let's tour the resort and beach itself. Later posts will showcase a self-walk and bus tour I took of the local town. Enjoy!

Villa house on the resort. Each villa holds about 5 rooms. Our room was on the second floor.


        
Sculpture & pine tree on the resort grounds.

Club Kawama had about three swimming pools, one for children and two for adults. I managed to shoot pics of the kid's pool and main adult pool near the lobby...

Kid's pool with slide & showers.

Adult pool -- kids could swim in a shallower pool attached to this one. Taken with blue filter.
The resort had 2 buffet restaurants, several bars, 3 specialty restaurants, a snack house, and this cozy coffee house, which was quite popular for those to chat and meet other guests.

The coffee hut.
My personal favorite were the lizards running about the resort grounds. They loved to lie out in the sun during the daytime heat, but as soon as a human approached, would scurry off in hiding. I managed to snap this one from the snack bar and using my 60x zoom lens....

I am not a zoologist nor a biologist, so I am not sure the name of this type of lizard.
They are harmless and have cute, curly tails.

The reason most visit Cuba is to soak up the sun on the beaches. Varadero beach is probably the most popular beach resort area on Cuba and it's easy to see why. It's a public beach, so you will see locals here on weekends especially, but the best part? The government forbids vendors and speedboats on and around this beach, so it is very quiet, relaxing, and stress free for tourists.

Beach chairs are free to use -- no charge (unlike Thailand!!!).

These photos I took while sitting from my lounger one day. It's easy to see why this beach has been rated as best in the world....

Beach coconuts. Taken with blue filter.

Volleyball net. Free for guests.
The temperature during February was about 29 C daily, with the hottest time of the day between 11:00 ~ 16:00. Surprisingly, the beach turned out to be a cool spot during the daytime, as the breeze from the ocean made the temperatures much cooler. I actually brought a blanket most days to my lounger as the wind was a little chilly (well, as a cat-like person, I really love the heat!).

I hope you enjoyed the photos from Varadero, Cuba. Be sure to check back to see pictures taken from the town and local artists next week.

Enjoy beaches & islands!

~ INFORMATION ~

Varadero Cuba is about 4 hours by airplane from Toronto and the east coast of Canada. See Skyscanner for flight times and costs.

Where to stay?
Club Kawama is an all-inclusive resort right on Varadero beach. It's a 3-star resort, so don't expect beautiful rooms, but it's good value for your money. Our cost for one week was $800 per person, including flight + airport transfers + food + alcohol + medical insurance.
There are a large number of resorts on the island and most are all-inclusive. It's recommended to book a 4-star or higher hotel as Cuban standards are slightly lower than other resort islands in the world. However, I didn't have any complaints about Club Kawama. It was comfortable and clean.

Best times to visit Cuba?
November to March is high season, due to many "snowbirds" (Canadians trying to escape the long winter).

Safety: 
Cuba is a very safe country with no terrorism and low crime. The only thing to watch out for are pick-pockets. I recommend locking your valuables in your luggage, rather than the hotel safe (which could have a master key).
Female travelers may be approached by local men. The majority are very friendly and non-threatening, however, just be cautious.