The trouble with all-inclusive beach resort vacations (aside from the clinical removal of any ‘authentic’ culture in the country of visit) is bad weather.
This happens rarely. But when it does, every tourist at the resort is in serious need of a Valium to stop their chins from sinking into the white marble floor (these are available over-the-counter here, but in a cruel Communist joke, only in Departures at the Varadero airport).
Luckily we’d split the week – three days in Havana and four in Varadero. The dilapidated capital of Cuba is so charming, it looks even better in the rain. The pastel blues, peaches and greens of the once grand houses, now chipped away so one paint layer revels another like a patchwork rainbow, glisten bright against a dull, white sky. After cancelling our “social projects” walking tour (bigged up in the LP) because of the torrential downpour, we skipped under the narrow concrete awnings of the buildings in the Old Town, jockeying for sidewalk space every few blocks with the rare local desperate enough to brave the wet, and into the Cuban section of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana. A mesmerizing introduction to Cuban history and culture, we tagged surreptitiously, behind an Jewish couple from New York, being led around by a Cuban-born American thick in art knowledge and connections (“Oh, his work is finally in major demand, I’ve got one of his in my living room…”) and less narcissistic, more artistic, commentary.
We chose one of the Spanish Club’s for lunch, waiting in line of course, and walked three flights of winding stairs into the club complete with suited-up waiters and the skulls of bulls decorating the ornate, cavernous restaurant. The food was the best we had in the city at a cheaper price than most.That evening we went out late, to a lounge, El Gato Tuerto, near the highly recommended Hotel Nacional. It was as if we’d been plucked into 1950’s Cuba. You could imagine American gangsters smoking cigars at the rickety metal tables and plastic black chairs crowding the L-shaped lounge, drinking rum served by the tuxedoed bartenders. Well, you could imagine it if you stripped away some of the more modern clientele. We played a guessing game: pick out the prostitutes, easily spotting a middle-aged British couple and the round, young Cuban woman they’d hired for the week; Her boot in his lap while his wife danced drunkenly, dizzily pulling a Cuban man toward her after lighting his cigarette at the bar.
And the music. Hard to describe. A short, fat woman, caked in makeup, her brows darkened like her bouffant hair-do (complete with thick black headband) to cover the grey, lips full and red, chins waggling, stepped on stage with a four-piece band and her voice – like sweet, dark caramel – enveloped the room, willing dancers to the floor. (Check her out here). I later found via a tripadvisor post, that Migdalia Hechevarria, is a regular weekend headliner at the bar.
That was our best day in Havana. The next morning we boarded the Hershey Train for a ride on a once luxurious three-car sugar train, built to chug sugar from the plantations in central Havana and Veradero to the coast. Since the closure of the Hershey plant around 2003, the thing still goes four times a day, stopping every ten minutes or so at seemingly any village, house or crossing along the way, it’s main function is transporting locals – many on the dole now – from one village to the next.
It’s a rich slice of Cuban life – one that shouldn’t be missed. Just be prepared with books, blankets (in case of cold weather, it’s open air), and stamina to endure what feels and sounds like a four-hour ride on the Mighty Canadian Minebuster, one of the oldest, most rickety, wooden rollercoasters in North America. It’s worth it.
Next Blau Varadero, a lovely high-rise resort built just five years ago. This modern monstrosity is everything a simple all-inclusive should be, and it’s friendly, central bar was chalk full of Brits, French Canadians, and (English ones too, although they tend not to park it at the bar for as long). The beach hut disco is good times, and we had two days of partial sun, warm enough for me to brave a bikini, pulling off my towel every 15 minutes or so when the clouds parted (and for Conor to pull his towel back on so as not to burn his whiter than white, freckled body).
Pictures? You want pictures? Check ’em all out here.