“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. ~H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
Part 1 in a three part series. With people heading south to escape our Canadian winter, I am reminded of a trip in June 2016 to Havana, Cuba. For the first time during our three visits to Cuba, we focused our attention on Havana. The Iberostar Parque Central, in the heart of Havana, was our home away from home. For four days, we wandered the streets, enjoyed the sights and sounds and food of this Cuban city.
This post was previously published in 2016, just before our third trip to Cuba. Next Thursday, I will publish the second post in this series about our stay in Havana.
In 1979, we travelled as a young married couple to Cuba. This was our second trip to the Caribbean and yes, 1979 does seem far away for sure, but it has already been twelve years since our most recent trip to Havana and Varadero (2004)…where has time gone?
Once again, we are ready “to throw off the bowlines and sail away”. I have my trusted Tilley hat to protect me from the sun and my bottles of sunscreen ready, but not much else as I am writing this post. It has been a busy week and my suitcase is ready to be filled.
As you read this, I will be on a flight to Cuba.
This holiday was decided on a whim, with the impulsive words “why don’t we go?” one April night after more than one glass of wine with our close friends.
We were talking about our travels and reminiscing about trips both couples had taken to Cuba and the changes that will occur in that country after relations improve between the USA and Cuba.
President Obama had visited Havana in March, and we had seen some familiar Cuban landmarks on the national news. One thing lead to another (you know how that goes with good friends and wine on the table) and during the week following that spring evening, our trip was booked.
This post will be a bit different as I am taking a trip down that well-known path…memory lane.
When my husband and I were university students, we had a bit of extra earnings that allowed us to go to Jamaica in 1978 and then to Cuba in 1979.
We had no expectations back then other than hoping for hot, sunny weather and an escape from university studies. Very few Canadian tourists ventured to Cuba back in those days.
In 1979, Russian soldiers could be seen patrolling the beaches. Cubans detested their presence. There were also very few hotels in Varadero and only a choice of three hotels for Canadian tourists. Other hotels welcomed guests from the Soviet Union or eastern European countries.
Tourists soaked in the sun on the mostly deserted stretch of soft sand in front of the International Hotel in Varadero. There were no palapas, no waiters bringing drinks to patrons on the beach, no beach music, and no pools. It was all very ….quiet and enjoyable. Even the beach chairs were borrowed metal kitchen chairs from somewhere in the hotel as you can see in the above photo.
I don’t think I would be exaggerating to say that our hotel room was sparse.
As I remember it, we had two twin beds, a small bathroom with just the bare necessities.
Cabanas del Sol on the International grounds offered us a two-level “suite” with green or pink cement blocks dividing the rooms.
There was a kitchen as pictured above and I was pretending to get us some drinks of water, yup, water, from the gaping maw of our full sized empty fridge. Back then, there were no chips and cola and beer that hotels now offer in most rooms. There were no plush towels or bathrobes, no room service either. The decor matched the room: minimalist in design and in colour.
All meals and entertainment were available at the International. Most days, the offerings were the same: fried green tomatoes, chicken or fish.
In the seventies, we didn’t know about all the possible little niceties that holiday packages now offer tourists going south.
While we were in the lounge one night, we befriended Cuban dancers getting ready for the weekly entertainment. These were not the young faces of today’s resort entertainment.
Dancers were in their thirties to late forties. All were from Cuba. Tony and Julia (not a couple) invited us to their homes in Varadero for a meal the next night. It was party atmosphere that greeted us behind the closed door in their drab apartment building. They gave us a different perspective of the way Cubans mistrusted other Cubans, of living a life in secrecy, always aware of prying eyes, and of spies wherever they went.
All told, we were quite content with our choice; in fact, we recommended the same trip to friends and they too, booked a beach holiday in Cuba in 1980. It is with this same couple that we will soon leave for our stay in Havana.
And now I look back and see how young we were. Our whole lives were ahead of us. That same year, we started our family and then we bought our first home. So this was to be our last trip south for many years to come. We wouldn't return to Cuba until 2004, when our children were all grown.
Here we were, 25 years later, in Havana for a short visit. This was the entertainment at lunch in a small restaurant.
What a difference this visit was to our first one.
By 2004, Varadero was THE destination for a sunny getaway from the cold Canadian winter.
There were thousands of tourists all along the beach in Varadero…and no Russian soldiers. Luxurious hotels dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see. Beach bars offered refreshments other than the coconut water I was drinking above (it was early morning, what can I say?). The pool bars were well stocked with all types of beverages.
At the Sol Palmeras, a huge property where we stayed in 2004, it was possible to book a day trip to Havana. The sightseeing tour brought us to visit highlights of the capital, but it was a whirlwind visit.
No more kitchen chairs on the beach. In fact, hotels had pools and palapas and music and all the entertainment which is now expected by most tourists.
This time however, there will be no rush to follow a group and we will be able to linger or return to the places that are of interest as we will be staying at the Parque Central, centrally located in downtown Havana.
I hope to sit in a courtyard such as this one and perhaps get some sketching done. A nice cold beer will surely be appreciated too!
I am catching the trade winds in my sails one more time.