We had to be out of hotel by 12 (and picked up at 2), so we packed after breakfast and checked out leaving our luggage with the bellhop.
Another fort, this one's the Police HQ
Old town is very picturesque - One day, you suspect, this will be prime real estate
We spent the morning exploring the old town, taking in some of the sights we hadn’t yet seen and ducking into some of the less touristy roads too from time to time - We never felt endangered and whilst traders (especially carriage and taxi drivers) frequently approached us they would take no for an answer and after a day or so we were becoming toughened to it and had no trouble waving them off without breaking pace.
Mandy and Ryan in the Old Square
Lauren in the Old Square
Little roads lead to churches, lead to little roads...
Memorial to Humboldt, the man who discovered the Humboldt Penguin (he did a bit more too)
We ate lunch in Cafe Paris, which was very tasty and not dear, and a carnival came past, which we followed down the street for a while.
Havana in a nutshell
Former Presidential Train carriage
Some shade afforded by the buildings
We were Back to the hotel in time to collect our luggage and meet the bus to take us to Veradero.
It was Cuba's National Day (26th July), so plenty of official buildings were flying the flag
Carnival in the streets
This was a two and a half hour trip, mostly along the coast, but with some good views of the countryside with thick vegetation near to Matanzas.
Another official building flying the flag
A residential street, not luxurious, but with a certain charm
Russian SU100 (I think) from the Revolution
Last stroll along the Prado
It didn't seem long before we arrived at our hotel, the Breezes Bella Costa.
The view from our balcony. Not bad...
My first impression was of well presented, classy public areas and our interconnected rooms were a good size, clean and fairly modern with a view over the south side of the peninsula,
rather than the noisier beach side.
Reception bar at the Breezes Bella Costa
That first evening we had to eat in “Jimmy’s” buffet restaurant and it was very chaotic. The food was ok and there was plenty of variety, but we only ate dinner there that one
night, although we had breakfast there each morning and it was much quieter (as it seemed when we passed other evenings).
Stairwell leading to rooms at the Breezes Bella Costa
We had a quick dip in the Gulf of Mexico before dinner. The beach was white sand a clear turquoise sea, just as you’d imagine the Caribbean to be.
Friday - Veradero
We just relaxed on the beach this first day. We swam a lot, ate lunch from the poolside BBQ and then had dinner in the hotel’s Japanese restaurant. Although we sat in the shade a lot, we spent too much time in the strong sun in the sea and we all got a little burnt. The sea was fairly devoid of fish, but was lovely and warm and it was hard to stay out!
Some say this is one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. It certainly lived up to our expectation
Surprisingly quiet beach (lots of people stayed by the pool, why?)
Saturday - Veradero
I was supposed to go diving, but somehow the dive centre bus and I failed to connect, despite (supposedly) being in the hotel reception at the same time, so we spent the morning on the beach (spending no more than 15 minutes at a time in the sea, except Lauren who tans well) and then decided to go and see what (if anything Veradero town had to offer). Sadly, when we went it was far to hot, combined with sun burn this was a bad mix and we didn’t stay long before retreating to the hotel and beach. What we saw was pretty dull. Lots of people selling tourist trinkets (we did buy a couple of things for gifts), some cheap restaurants and shops for the locals - Some of which we weren’t allowed in! Presumably to prevent us seeing just how over the odds the tourist tat was.
We ate in the hotel’s Cuban restaurant that night. This is an open fronted restaurant right on the beach and is also a good place for lunch (they even had REAL chips and made to order Pizzas, which Ryan especially appreciated!).
Sunday - Veradero/Day trip to Zapata Peninsula
I’d rearranged to dive on Tuesday and Wednesday after the mix up on Saturday, so we took a day trip to the Zapata Peninsula (which include the Bay of Pigs, although we didn’t go that far). First stop was a forum sugar cane plant in the oddly named “Australia” where former workers took us on a 1920s steam train (used on the plant - Cuba had one of the earliest train networks because of the Sugar cane industry) to see sugar cane (and other crops, like Coffee and Bananas, growing). Our hosts were great fun (like most Cubans we met) and grateful for a small tip. They sang as we travelled on the train and we tried raw sugar cane and the crushed cane juice, freshly crushed, that was surprisingly less sweet than you’d imagine.
Hundred year old steam trains in Central Australia
The old rail shed afforded some welcome shade
See, it really IS called Australia!
One of the trains still runs for visitors
Former workers act as guides and provide musical entertainment
Ryan is Bananas! Oh, Ryan in Bananas...
Mandy and Lauren join in, we all had a good time
Mural on the wall recalls life on the plantations
Plantation office acted as command centre for Cuba forces during "Bay of Pigs" event
Ryan in the small museum about the Bay of Pigs conflict
After that we had lunch in a small visitor centre, with animals including an Iguana and some Jutias (tree rats as our guide called them) which was pretty good, accompanied by a musical group who were remarkably good.
Other visitors seemed in awe of Lauren's lack of fear of snakes...
..but it was the cow she wanted to take home. It seemed to like the taste of her suntan lotion!
Then we headed off to Boca del Guama, which is the start of a small canal leading to the Laguna del Tesoro(Treasure lake) where a small resort complex features ‘straw’ huts in which visitors can stay. There’s also a replica village showing what life was like before the Spanish arrived and wiped out the approximately 100,000 inidgenous people.
Typical house in the Zapata countryside
You get there by speedboat, which whisks you along the Mangrove lined canal and across the canal until you reach a jetty by one of the huts.
Boca del Guama is very pictureque
Speedboats whisk visitors to Guama village
The huts are arranged on a number of islands, each with a number of huts, either bars, restaurants or accommodation (there’s even a swimming pool) and the islands are linked by wooden bridges.
Lauren enjoying the boat ride
Mangrove lined canal leads to lake
It looks quite a novel place to stay.
The village reconstruction features a number of sculptures depicting figures in Taino pastimes, playing children, people hunting crocodiles or ducks and a rather poignant one of a woman waiting, forlornly for the return of her man from a hunting trip or possibly, it struck me, killed by the merciless Spanish invaders.
Statues represent scenes from indigenous people's lives before the Spanish killed them all
Another speedboat leaves the village
After a return boat trip, we crossed from the boat moorings at Boca to the crocodile farm there.
We saw some of the nurseries with 6 inch long crocodiles and then one for creatures about 4 or 5 feet long, but the highlight was the big ones in a huge pool (a small lake really). A raised platform over the fence enabled us to look down as the staff threw in some meat which had the crocodiles swiftly sweeping through the water and across the short piece of land to reach it.
Colourful lizard at the Crocodile farm
Full grown animals are powerful beasts!
Their speed was shocking, both in and out of the water and left you in no doubt that you’d need to be VERY careful around this creatures.
Sated after a good meal, but I still wouldn't venture in!
After that it was back to the bus and a 2 hour or so drive back to Veradero. It actually rained briefly on the way back, but by the time we reached our hotel we were back to the customary clear blue skies, despite the supposedly being ‘hurricane season’.
50's cars are quite a common scene in the countryside too, not just for Havana tourists
Cárdenas city streets - Most cubans outside the big cities live in places like this.
In the evening I had booked us into the Italian in the hotel and we had a excellent meal here, this definitely being the best restaurant.
This truck was a bus - People wave it down and cram in the back
Monday - Veradero/Catamaran trip
Ryan and I treated ourselves to a lie in on Monday, as Mandy and Lauren took a catamaran trip to the nearby Cayo Blanco to do some snorkelling.
They had a pretty good day and Ryan and I borrowed a pedalo for a while and ventured into slightly deeper water off the beach at the hotel, and generally relaxed in the warm shade, only venturing as far as the beach side restaurant for lunch and to the poolside bar for the odd drink now and then.
Catamaran that took Mandy and Lauren to...
... Cayo Blanco, for snorkeling and lunch.
Officially, our all-inclusive deal only entitled us to eat in the a la carte restaurants once in our week’s stay, but I went down on the Monday and was able to book us into all 3 restaurants again, so we returned to the Cuban for dinner.
Ryan relaxes on the beach
We all spent ages in the warm, clear sea. We soon got used to the jellyfish (they didn't sting)
Mandy and the kids spent the days at the hotel, getting a pedalo one day.
Hotel viewed from a Pedalo
We ate in the Japanese restaurant one evening and rounded out our stay with a second visit to the italian where we had another excellent meal.
We had to try a cigar - Lauren..
...Ryan (just holding for the picture)...
...and Mandy...Not a natural!
Thursday - Homeward bound.
Lauren and I spent a last hour on the beach, whilst Ryan stayed on his Nintendo DS and Mandy packed. After a quick lunch in El Mirador (The Cuban restaurant on the beach) we were picked up by a bus at 1PM and then took the supposedly 2.5 hour trip back to Havana airport along the same coast road we’d taken there.
About to leave Veradero behind
There was a huge storm as we approached Havana and this slowed our progress meaning it took nearer 3.5 hours. The roads were running like rivers, but fortunately, the large overhang of the airport terminal meant we didn’t get too wet getting off. Sadly Ryan’s suitcase was soaked and on our return to the UK it had killed the screen on his laptop, much to his annoyance. Fortunately eBay yielded a replacement and it was fixed by Saturday lunchtime!
The countryside heading back towards Havana
Check in was a bit slow, but fairly organised and after paying our 25 CUC departure tax each we passed through emigration (one of the few places where that’s harder than immigration!) control and waited for our plane.
It left about 45 minutes late, but arrived back at Gatwick on Friday about on time.
Overall we’d had a great holiday, Havana is a really great city to explore. The people are helpful and friendly, if keen to get convertible Pesos, but never aggressive and we never felt any fear walking around the streets, even the clearly less glamourous ones. We rode in private taxis with no problems and generally really enjoyed our 3 days in the city.
I think we paid over the odds for every trip, but everything was cheap by UK standards anyway, so I don’t begrudge a few Cubans making a few Pesos out of us if it makes their life a bit better.
Veradero is very much a tourist beach resort. You could easily never venture out of your all-inclusive hotel, but you’d miss out if you didn’t. Our trip to the Zapata peninsula was a highlight and we all enjoyed the variety of it and got to see a little of the countryside and towns of Cuba, which are somewhat different to Veradero and Havana.
The Breezes Bella Costa isn’t at its prime any more, but the food was acceptable to good in our view and the rooms comfortable and clean. The bar, restaurant, front desk and cleaning staff were all friendly and helpful (the waiting staff a little keen to snatch away your plates, we felt, oddly as there was no second sitting in the restaurants) and all-inclusive really did mean all-inclusive - we never found anything that required a little extra, except the trips out.
I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from staying there - It’s well priced and comfortable. Mandy overheard someone say “Well, it’s Cuba, you have to expect the food to be awful”, but I don’t know what they’re used to because it wasn’t awful at all, some was good and the vast majority quite acceptable. We visited Bulgaria and Moscow under Communist regimes so had visions of stale potatoes and solid bread every day, which bore no comparison to the food we got! I’ve had worse in Spain and the US!
The diving was highly enjoyable (see my separate report, if you’re interested) and overall we all greatly enjoyed our trip to Cuba.
If we ever go back, I suspect we’d head to another city and then spend some time on a beach elsewhere - Personally I’d love to dive on the Jardines Des Reinas, but who knows if we ever will come back, chances are it’ll be a few years at least, before we do, but that’s no reflection on Cuba.