Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The true Cuba

Day trips from Varadero offer more authentic view of Caribbean nation

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Ahhh, Cuba! The land of blue seas and sandy beaches; tropical cocktails and gently swaying coconut trees. For many Canadians, this can be the ideal winter break from dreary, slush-filled, winter days.

A popular destination for Canadian tourists is Varadero, Cuba's most well-known resort town. But Cuba is also sweaty nightclubs full of salsa aficionados, tiny art galleries lining large boulevards, domino-thumping locals sitting at wooden tables on street sidewalks, musicians stroking their guitars as they serenade all who pass by and country roads where fresh juice stands hover at the outskirts of villages no tourist has ever heard of.

Staying at an all-inclusive resort in Varadero may be a great way to avoid the extra costs of travelling while enjoying lazy days by the pool or on the sand, but as relaxing as Varadero can be, it lacks that "je ne sais quoi" people often look for when travelling abroad. The good news is there is a way to see Cuba and keep costs outside of your "all-inclusive" deal to a minimum.

Day trips from Varadero offer a chance of a more authentic perspective of not only the land, but of the people and their culture. It may take a little planning, but the locals will make it worthwhile.

If travelling to Cuba for a week, here are some day trips that can make your trip much more interesting.

Colon

Colon, in and of itself, is no tourist destination, but that is the beauty of this tiny place, and making this one of your first destinations will give you a taste of the real Cuba. Have a local espresso (Café Cubano) as you look around the bustling marketplace. Sample frituras (fritters) made from malanga, a starchy but delicious root vegetable resembling a yam. Though Cubans are not known for their spicy food, ask for some hot sauce and go straight to heaven.

Wander around the Parque de la Libertad, or rest underneath one of the gigantic trees surrounding the Catholic Church. Check out the Dali-esque murals decorating hotel walls and see a relic of the first train to pass through this town in 1951. As there is no tourism here, this is the kind of town where you'll easily get a glimpse of everyday life, making it just the way to start your exploration of the country.

Cardenas

Cardenas is a harder, grittier town, and much larger than Colon. Many of its residents work in Varadero, serving cocktails and cleaning rooms. The buildings' facades are peeling and the overall look of the town is quite rundown, but it offers in historical wealth what it lacks in beauty.

At the northern end of this town is a monument to where Cuba's first flag was raised on May 19, 1850. From there, peer across the sea and you can spot the endless Varadero coastline.

Don't miss the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepcion on your way back into town, where it is rumoured the oldest statue of Christopher Columbus stands.

Perhaps one of the biggest highlights in Cardenas is the Museo de Batalla de Ideas (the Battle of Ideas Museum). Here is a comprehensive history of the U.S.-Cuban political struggle, which includes a section dedicated to the U.S.-Cuban Elian Gonzalez crisis of 1999-2000.

Trinidad

Founded in the 1500s, Trinidad is one of seven cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cuba. It is considered a jewel of a city by tourists and locals alike and the atmosphere will not disappoint. Check out Las Ruinas del Teatro Brunet, a bar/nightclub set in the ruins of an old building. Open during the day for snacks and drinks, you'll enjoy the garden-like feel of this place, where leafy vines hang from the open ceiling.

Another choice for a daytime meal is Restaurante El Tenedor, a small restaurant/bed and breakfast nestled in the hills of Trinidad. The rooftop terrace offers a 360-degree view of the town like no other, and whether you choose lobster or chicken, the food is prepared with love and is tastier than some of the best three-star eateries in Varadero.

Don't forget to wander around Plaza Mayor, from which a multitude of narrow streets leads to layer upon layer of arts and crafts booths great for purchasing mementos. As long as you meet your ride back in time, there is no substitution for going off on your own to discover the town and its locals.

The evening drive back to Varadero is a bonus. The landscape awash in soft orange light gives a certain unearthly quality to a full day of adventure. After a day in Trinidad, you'll want to plan your next trip to Cuba around this town.

Swimming with the dolphins

Many people would like to swim with wild dolphins, but that is hard to find, and Cuba is no exception. What Varadero hotels do offer, however, is a trip out to visit dolphins in Rancho Cangrejo, where these mammals live in semi-captivity. Take an early ride out to the middle of the ocean, on a yacht stocked with rum and other goodies, and soon the cement enclosures housing eight friendly dolphins will appear right out of the shallow water. In groups of about 12 people, you will get a chance to enter the water and swim with the dolphins. Give a tip to the trainer after the session is over and get the chance to fly! The dolphins will lift you out of the water on their rostrums (beaks), giving the photographer, who will undoubtedly try to sell you his works of art, an opportunity to capture the moment.

Havana

You can't go to Cuba and not see Havana! And, sadly, a day trip is a near-impossible task. Take a chance and spend a bit of money on a casa particular (bed and breakfast) in the capital city. Once you've spent two days and a night there, you'll wonder why you didn't stay there for your entire week.

Havana is a very large city and one of the best ways to see it is to take the Habana Bus Tour. There are several double-deckers leaving from Parque Central (hang out there and listen to local men as they engage in passionate political debates).

The whirlwind bus trip will take you past the Necropolis Cristbal Colon. This expansive cemetery, stark and white, yet cool and shaded, houses some artistic greats such as writer Alejo Carpentier and Buena Vista Social Club member Ibrahim Ferrer. A map of the interesting attractions can be purchased at the entrance and will lead you on a fascinating historical tour.

Another important stop on the tour is along the Malecon near Habana Vieja. Stroll along the boardwalk and venture into the older part of the city. Stop at one of the restaurants in the Plaza de la Catedral and have a cubata (a rum and coke using dark rum).

Interested in walking in Hemingway's footsteps? Have a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar made famous for Hemingway's love of this cocktail. It's not cheap and some people believe there are better mojitos to be had, but the ambience in this small bar is inviting and kicking with live music.

Before returning to Varadero, make sure to check out the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes for a more in-depth look into Cuban culture. Word of warning, one can spend a whole day in such a place. Take a modern tour of the museum and head straight for the second floor where you will see works of art by Cuban greats, such as Manuel Mendive, Tomas Sanchez and Aldo Menendez.

Even with these four-day trips, you will still have plenty of time to catch a bit of sun and surf on the warm shores of Varadero. The only difference now is you'll leave Cuba having experienced a vast array of cultural offerings.

Bon voyage!

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

-- A trip to Colon and Cardenas can be done in one day. Book a taxi through Taxi Orestes where a full day, including lunch for the driver/tour guide, will cost about CUC $80 (pesos convertibles; the currency tourists use). Call 5-271-7001. Other options are to ask hotel employees for recommendations.

Colon operates with Cuban pesos, not with CUCs, so for purchasing food or drinks there, your guide will often pay up front.

-- The Battle of Ideas Museum in Cardenas is entirely in Spanish, so if you can't read the language, make sure to bring your guide with you. Entrance is CUC $5.

-- Trinidad is a difficult town to access through public transportation as buses going there arrive only in the evening. The best way to check out Trinidad for the day is to book a day tour through your hotel. The trip is CUC $71 (through Sunwing package deals) for a round-trip tour that takes you through Cienfuegos to Trinidad and back. A bit of advice? Pay for the bus trip, not the tour. For CUC $40, you will still have the opportunity to get a 20-minute walk-through of Cienfuegos and then, while the other tourists are following their guide around Trinidad, head out on your own for a few hours.

-- A great casa particular in central Havana is Casa Isabel. Overnight stays run about CUC $30 per night. This place has two clean rooms with individual bathrooms and safes, breakfast is included, and they can provide a lavish dinner for an extra fee, if requested. Call (53-7) 860-18-43 or email habanaroom

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2013 D3

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