Before kids, I traveled a lot. I combed beaches in Thailand, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Jamaica, Mexico, St. Kitts, and other exotic locations. I have the sun spots to prove it. I have plenty of destinations left on my sandy bucket list, but as a family of four, they’ll have to wait because exotic costs a lot of clams.
But life is too short to forgo splashing in the waves and building sand castles with your kids. So this winter we took a trip—our first ever family beach vacation! After researching, asking all the questions, reading reviews, comparing destinations, and speaking with a travel agent, we chose Cuba because... the price was right and we got great value for our budget. Plus it’s safe and the beaches are among the most beautiful and pristine in the world.
The people are super friendly and they really like Canadians. Also, the health care is top notch. This last point was a deal closer for me because traveling with a child with special needs makes this a top priority. You can read more about that HERE.
Turns out I needn't have worried about my daughter at all. She was as healthy as a Cuban donkey. My son, however, had terrible stomach pains about midway through the week. Of course, as I prepared to get him airlifted home (because surely it was appendicitis) my husband suggested it could just be indigestion. It was indigestion. The resort doctor was excellent and he promptly confirmed this.
We came home from our Cuban vacation relaxed, happy, and healthy, singing the island’s praises and already planning our return visit. Friends have asked us for tips, so here’s a quick Cuban Vacation Guide for anybody who might be considering this destination for their next family vacation.
The rumours are true. The food isn’t great. If gourmet buffets are your thing, Cuba cuisine will be a huge disappointment. However, the food is edible, and you certainly won’t starve. Silver lining, I came home down two pounds! How often can you say that post-vacation? My dining advice is to fill up at breakfast—boiled eggs or veggie omelettes, toast, hashbrowns, fruit, cereal, coffee and juice. Breakfast was the one meal we were all guaranteed to find something we liked.
For lunch we ate at the beach restaurant and grabbed a quick pasta salad or slice of pizza. (Warning: the cheese is weird. It’s like a queso fresco, aka squeaky cheese. Also, the meat is gamey from what I heard. We didn’t try it. Apparently the fish is quite good though).
Dinner at our all-inclusive resort (we stayed at the Melia Jardines del Ray in Cayo Coco) was either buffet style, similar to lunch, or you can book an a la carte dining experience in one of the resort’s separate restaurants (e.g. Italian, Japanese, seafood). The booking process is archaic. You have to line up at the reservation office to reserve in person (they suggest you do this the day you arrive to ensure availability).
It’s a pain, but hey, when in Cuba… just go with it.
We brought snacks with us from home to bring to the beach so we were never hungry. Note: Make sure these snacks items are sealed and unopened as they may be confiscated otherwise upon inspection at airport security. Going through customs at the Cuban airport made me a little nervous. There were drug sniffing dogs and very serious looking security dudes. Mind you, I’m not a fan of crossing ANY borders at the moment. #Trump
So yes, the food is meh, but look at the upside... more room for piña coladas! On that note, remember to bring an insulated mug with a lid for each of you. We filled ours with water (they supply plenty of bottled, filtered water) to sip at the beach, and in the afternoon my husband and I may have switched to Cuba Libras and mojitos.
Cuba is a third world country. I had to remind myself of this every time I tried unsuccessfully to get internet service. Guess how many times I connected to the hotel wifi? Zero. The nice lady in the communications office just smiled and said, “Sorry, windy today.” Apparently the weather affects whether or not you can check your email. So, if you’re planning on working while you’re in Cuba, don’t count on it.
I was actually quite happy not to be able to login to Instagram or Facebook. It was freeing. Sidenote: My thirteen year old over dinner one night said, “Mom, look around. What do you notice? Not one person is on their phone. How nice is that?”
Sigh. It was nice. And a real eye-opener.
Cuba is like most other foreign destinations: you bring a major foreign currency and exchange it for local currency to make purchases while you’re there. Cuban currency is NOT traded internationally, so you can’t buy it in advance. You buy it when you arrive in Cuba. The major legal currency for Cuba is the Cuban Convertible Peso. It’s what you exchange your foreign currency for and make all your purchases with in Cuba. Most tourists will only ever deal with CUC. For international exchange purposes 1.00 Cuban Convertible Peso = $1.00 USD. You can exchange Canadian dollars for CUC at the airport upon arrival (so you can tip your bus driver) and/or at your hotel.
Bring a few hundred dollars to potentially exchange. And remember to change left-over CUCs back to Canadian dollars before you head home.
Be gracious. Be polite. Just be Canadian, basically.
What to tip? Well, I can only tell what we decided on. We brought $200 Canadian cash for the week and changed it over to CUC at the airport. We then asked for larger bills to be broken down at the hotel bank. We tipped bus drivers, bell boys, servers, bartenders, and anyone who helped us a dollar each. Every time.
We also brought several bags of quality candy with us. We would leave a dollar and candy, arranged by the kids in a happy face or some other design ever day when we left our room. We also packed clothes that were nearly too small so that on the last day, the kids passed along shoes, clothing, hats and swim suits they’d outgrown to the two gardeners we befriended who had kids at home the same ages as ours. My daughter was over-the-moon happy to hand off her gently worn sun-dresses, shorts and sandals to a little girl who would love and appreciate them.
Lie by the pool and do absolutely nothing, or get off your lounger and join in a Zumba class on the pool deck. Do whatever floats your boat! Or check out the excursions your hotel offers and maybe book a bus tour, snorkeling trip, boat ride, horse rides on the beach, etc.
Visit the beach at night. If you’re on the north coast (like we were in Cayo Coco), you can see the lights of Miami glowing in the distance. It’s very cool. My husband swears up and down that the outline of a tower on the horizon was Cape Canaveral, but I don’t buy it.
Bring a sweater or a blanket to keep warm and lie on the beach and look up at the evening stars. It’s glorious. But don’t swim at night because… have you seen Jaws?!
If you travel to Cuba in the winter like we did, keep in mind that it’s also winter in Cuba. Of course there’s no snow, BUT the days are shorter. It took me a few days to figure why it was always dark by the time we came out from dinner. The sun goes down by around 6pm, so get up early and get out there and soak up as much sun as you can. This also means it will get cooler at night, so pack a warm sweater and long pants for the evening.
When choosing a hotel, remember that a “5 star” resort in Cuba is more like the "3 star" you’re probably used to. The beds weren’t the most comfortable, and the rooms are sparse. We were short one pillow for two nights. There is TV, but there are only a few English channels. We had the Cartoon Network, two American movie channels, CNN and something else. More than enough boob tube to get by in my opinion.
Definitely take in a show. Our resort had all kinds of entertainment every night. Dancing, singing, sparkly costumes..... good times all around. Also visit a local market (we had one on site) and buy a souvenir and support the local economy.
If you have any other Cuba tips, please feel free to share in the comments. “Auténtica Cuba!"