Finally, it’s time for the beach! Ahh Cuban beaches, the first place I learned to love the sand and crystal blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. We were on our way to Playas del Este, the beach of memory, when all of a sudden… where was this? The signs say Playa Santa Maria, but it can’t be! I ask our driver if there is more than one beach with this name, and he tells me there isn’t.
I had last visited Playa Santa Maria on December 19, 2002 (you can find the picture on facebook) – a time when it was “too cold to go to the beach” according to our Cuban friends, but we dragged them along anyway. And now… from a deserted beach with nothing but a small hut selling rum and coke by the bottle, to a Cancun-like array of white beach chairs and striped umbrellas; bars dotting the beach line; activities from catamaran sailing trips to kayaking to paddle boats; even a commercial was being filmed! This was not the beach I remembered it to be, instead it was full to the brim of tourists staying in all-inclusive hotels (something I was guilty of myself) and nary a Cuban in sight…
Nonetheless we enjoyed ourselves, though I believe the open bar helped out some, and spent two nights within spitting distance of what is still – despite the surge in popularity – one of the most gorgeous beaches I have spent time on.
There were some new folks joining us back in Havana, and it’s only fair they get to have a similar experience, so from the Capital we head back to the beach, this time to the resort-filled “town” of Varadero. Imagine Playa del Carmen without the convenience, and that’s what Varadero is – a beach resort where all-inclusive packaged deals lure Canadians, Germans, Swiss and whoever else to escape their harsh winters and come to the tranquil coast of Cuba. Too bad the tranquil coast was dotted with red flags, putting a damper on too much ocean-floating time.
No biggie, we found out something else to do. And what’s better than floating in water? Floating in the sky! That’s right – thanks to Lonely Planet (I despise that book in so many ways, but it does spark some creative juices) I learned that there is a skydiving operation in Varadero. With very little convincing, three others had signed on with me, and we made reservations to throw ourselves out of a plane the following afternoon. It was, oddly enough, less scary than bungee jumping (but still a bit terrifying!) and one of the biggest adrenaline rushes EVER! I definitely cannot wait to do it again!
One of the strangest things to get used to – especially in a place like Varadero, that so caters to tourists – is the lack of everyday items that are all over in Central America. I’m talking about things like local markets, internet cafes, mini-marts selling bottled water and snacks, salons and shoe shiners. I understand the limited resources in Cuba and the lack of availability of certain items, but to be in such a “packaged” place and still not have those conveniences seems rather strange to me.