Cuba All Inclusive Vacation
Lessons we learned on our first all-inclusive resort holiday
After two-plus years of Covid-19 and being unable to enjoy any international travel, Nick & I have been chomping at the bit to get out and travel again. Having seen many people travelling to international destinations, the FOMO took hold of us. We racked our brains for ways we could do some travel that would have the lowest risk factor, and we came up with a Cuba all inclusive vacation.
We had never done an all-inclusive vacation before, and we were a little apprehensive because I didn’t see myself as a resort person. After talking with a very experienced family member, we dug deeper and decided this could answer our wanderlust. The resorts had what seemed like excellent covid protocols; they were starting to welcome back visitors, so they only allowed about 50% capacity, and the flight was direct. All great things to help put our minds at ease.
As this was our first-time visiting Cuba – we did not know what to expect exactly. Again, we turned to our all-inclusive queen, who told us much of what we needed to know. We checked other travel websites, blogs, and tourism bureaus, for additional information.
After all of that – here is what we learned about Cuba all inclusive vacations
Learn Some Spanish
Nobody expects you to become completely fluent in Spanish before your vacation, learn a little Spanish before you go. I suggest vital words and phrases that you will use frequently. How to order some common foods, locate bathrooms, how much, etc. Most people you will interact with in Cuba will be relatively fluent in English, but it wouldn’t hurt if you could also try to pick up some of their languages.
Duolingo is a great (and easy) tool for learning a new language.
Selecting Your Resort
Selecting the right vacation resort to stay at is one of the most important decisions you will make for your Cuba all inclusive vacation. Your budget & the price will play the most significant role in where you decide to stay. Research the various resorts and compare what they offer, location, additional options, amenities, etc. Create a checklist of priorities for you and your family, and then look to see which resorts suit your needs. Does the resort have a beachfront? Are there any upgrade packages? Do you want adults only or more family-oriented? Ask friends and family that have been to Cuba if they have any experiences. We chose the Iberostar Selection Bella Vista Varadero because of its beachfront property, service reputation, package options, and great amenities.
The star rating for a Cuba all inclusive resort is very different from most all-inclusive resorts in other countries.
Money is the most confusing (and problematic) issue we had on our vacation, and I hope we can clear it up for you before you head to Cuba for the first time. As we planned our trip, we looked up the latest information on handling money and how much to bring to Cuba. In the last couple of years, Cuba changed their currency system. They once had two kinds of currency but converted them into one unified system. So, anyone who gives you advice before covid should be aware of that.
Currency issues to consider:
Remember the political system of Cuba. The country has limited access to many things, meaning there is no way to get more outside foreign cash. There is no bank machine offering Canadian or US currency.
Credit vs Cash
We were informed everybody takes credit cards, so you don’t need to bring a lot of cash. Just have enough for tips and a bit extra. WRONG! We found it incredibly hard to use credit cards. Most places we went did not take credit cards. Our hotel, a couple of shops in the city, and the mall were the only places that took it that we went. I am sure more did, but it wasn’t as ubiquitous as others led us to believe.
Even the popular restaurant we ate at in Havana did not take credit. Which we wish we had known before we went. Our cab driver took us there without informing us – this left us scrambling for cash to pay the bill and have enough for a tip. We barely scraped by.
Cash is King
Have more cash on hand than you think you will need. But which currency? Everybody wants cash – cab drivers, wait staff, tour guides, restaurants, stores, craftspeople, bars, cafes, etc. The best suggestion is to bring a mix of cash. If you are Canadian, get CAD; however, ensure you have a lot of US $1 bills on hand. They do not want (they will refuse) CAD $1 & $2 coins – meaning that the smallest denomination you will have to offer in CAD is $5.
The Cuba Tourism board and other websites will inform you that NO USD is accepted, but that is not true. It is actually the preferred currency. They say this because they are the official government regulations, but the citizens want the USD cash.
Travel Tip: outside of the resort, even toilets cost. They often want $1US, 1EURO, or 100 PESOS (These are NOT equivalent values -so have $1 USD on hand -no change is offered)
Make sure you have all your Canadian & US currency before you leave because you can’t get any in CUBA.
Getting Cuban Pesos is only available IN CUBA. Do not get your money exchanged at the Airport when you arrive. Again, the official government office will charge you a higher exchange rate. If you wait until you are on the shuttle to your resort, the locals will offer you exchange at a much more beneficial rate (almost double).
For example, we spent $100CAD to get 1800 Pesos at the bank, while our travel companions got 1600 CUP for $40 on the bus.
I would get some Pesos for shopping at the local markets, crafters, etc., but do not get too many because you cannot exchange them back. Once you have it, you can’t do much with it until you return to Cuba. You can always get more if needed.
Food & Drink
I have heard many stories of how terrible the food is at a Cuba all inclusive resort, and of course, that concerned us, too. However, after a few days, I realized a few things about the food I think people forget to mention when discussing the dining options.
If you are expecting American food – get over it. The country doesn’t have access to the same quality and quantity of food you’d find in the USA/Canada.
Try eating more like a local (as we did and do), and you will be happier with your dining options. You will do well if you eat seafood, plantains, rice, beans, etc.
Availability affects offerings. If they run out of an item, the menu will change. They can’t guarantee a constant supply of various commodities, meaning you may have a thing one day but not the next.
Produce isn’t always of the same quality & freshness that you might expect. They do their best, but it can be challenging – please be understanding.
There are many ways to get sick when you visit a foreign country – tropical diseases, water, heat stroke, viruses, etc. Taking precautions and preventive measures is the best way to avoid getting sick. Before you go to a developing/underdeveloped nation, consider these tips:
Check with your healthcare provider or a travel vaccine clinic for necessary vaccines.
Pack a travel healthcare kit. It should include antinausea and antidiarrheal medication, NSAIDs (ibuprofen/acetaminophen) etc.
Drink only bottled or purified water (and plenty of it) to stay hydrated. Dehydration is not only an illness itself, but it is also a significant symptom of other diseases.
Stay well hydrated in the heat. Most resorts have purified/filtered water – so fill your water bottles there.
Use good bug spray and sun protection (hats, sunscreen, sunglasses)
Avoid eating street vendor food.
Avoid raw or undercooked meats, fish, eggs, or any food item left to sit in water (i.e., boiled eggs).
What to Pack
Before you head out on your Cuba all inclusive vacation, here is a simplified list of what you should have with you:
Light & breathable casual clothing (have something decent for dinner – but don’t stress)
Pack some clothing that you wear there, but don’t mind leaving behind when you are done with your vacation
Sneakers, sandals, flip-flops
several swimwear items (one is not going to be enough)
Individual packages of hot sauce or your favourite seasonings (food can be a bit bland at times)
Sun protection: (hat, lots of different sunscreens, sunglasses)
Bring a foldable small backpack for outings to carry everything
A small pouch of toilet tissue/wipes (you will thank us when you leave the resort)
Don’t forget to pack A health and wellness kit
Travel Coffee Mug (cups in resorts are just so small)
Water bottle – self-filtering is the best but most resorts have purified/filtered water. And the largest you can handle.
Snacks for outings – protein bars, jerky, etc.
Don’t forget your portable battery charger and tech accessories.
Do not overpack – you want to fill your allowable luggage space with stuff to leave behind.
What to Pack to leave behind
Cuba is an island country with limited access to supplies. The people who live there can also not afford a whole lot. Many kind-hearted tourists who visit Cuba plan to pack extra items in their luggage that they can leave behind that would benefit the locals. Some things have more value than others, and after chatting with several people we met in Cuba, here is a good list of items to bring that they appreciate receiving most.
Personal hygiene items – soap, shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrushes, feminine hygiene products, deodorant, etc
travel sized items are perfect because you can pack a lot more in your suitcase, and also give to more people
Candy, sweets, snacks – They greatly appreciated it when my candy-loving brother gave them liquorice, M&M’s, skittles, and gum. (he was their hero)
Stationery supplies like pens, pencils, crayons, coloured pencils, colouring books, etc
Footwear like sandals, flip-flops, crocs, etc.
Unused underwear, t-shirts, other clothing, etc., is appreciated. Gently used clothing is also appreciated, so pack items you can leave behind.
The highest value items they request are over-the-counter medications like pain relievers, first aid items, cold medicines, digestive remedies, disinfectant wipes and sanitizers.
Items we found that the people have a low interest in are sunscreen & bug spray, but I am sure more people want them than we found.
Never leave anything outside your door or unattended unless you intend to give it to someone. It will be gone by the time you go back to get it.
Get Off The Resort
When you go on a Cuba all inclusive vacation, the most important lesson I can impart is to take time and get out of the resort.
We started this story with an admission that we are not ‘resort’ people. As a non-swimmer or sunbather, I am prone to developing anxiety and boredom. Nick has described me as a ‘caged tiger’ on a cruise. I need to explore, get out, do things, experience the culture and history of a place, and have fun. In our 7-day Cuba all inclusive vacation, we took time for that.
Some of the activities we did were:
Bus tour into the city of Varadero and enjoy all that it has to offer – the old town, markets, new town, shopping, exploring
We arranged a catamaran excursion to Cayo Blanco island, which included snorkelling, lunch, partying, swimming, relaxing on the beach and meeting local wildlife.
Day trip to Havana – On another day, we hired a local cab and took a day trip to Havana. It was a long drive, but the driver acted as a tour guide the whole way, and throughout the city to ensure we saw all the highlights, hotspots, and tourist attractions. A visit to Cuba is just not complete until you visit Havana. This city is rich in history, heritage, culture, art, and fantastic food. Do not go to Cuba without visiting Havana.
If you are new to booking a Cuba all inclusive resort vacation, I hope our discoveries have helped you plan your trip. These types of packaged holidays make it easy for you to get away, however Cuba is a beautiful country and a destination that should be experienced beyond the resort.
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