I’d like to mention a few things you should consider when selecting a tour and comparing itineraries of different agencies. The travel styles of individuals vary quite a bit. Think about your friends visiting California for the first time. Would they want to see the whole state on a ten-day trip? Would you suggest they travel from city to city, spending lots of time on Interstate 5, checking in and out of hotels, and leaving an area just as they are becoming familiar it? Some travelers like that, but others prefer getting to know a couple of key areas better, enjoying the sights, but relaxing and having fun and not feeling rushed. Cuba is like that—it’s not as big as California, but it actually has a longer coastline. There is just a lot to see and do. The eastern half of the country is another world, best to be seen on your next trip (in my opinion). If you insist on seeing the whole country on one tour, I recommend one that is at least two full weeks in length.
Assuming you have ten days and nine nights, here are my suggestions, based on my experiences in Cuba and my travel style. I would spend the first six nights in Havana and the last three in Varadero. There is just a lot to see and do in Havana, which was for a couple of centuries the economic and cultural center of the entire western hemisphere. I suggest staying in Old Havana, between the harbor and as far west as Central Park and the Capitol Building. Even on very structured tours, there is usually plenty of free time to pursue a variety of unique interests, from ballet to béisbol, from old American cars to new private restaurants in restored mansions, from opera to rock to contemporary salsa to dance to. The many museums are incredible. While staying in Havana, I suggest you take a day trip to the west to the mountainous area around Viñales. These day trips usually include visits to tobacco farms and rum processing companies.
There is a long seawall protecting most of Havana, called the Malecón. There aren’t many public beaches around Havana, and the beaches 15 miles to the east aren’t especially notable. However, some of the island’s best beaches are at Varadero. Although some travelers disagree, I think that the Varadero Peninsula is a terrific place to spend your last days (in Cuba). It’s about a 2-hour drive from Havana, so you can return from there on your last day and go directly to the airport (especially if you are flying to Cancún). Some of my friends feel it is simply inappropriate to be staying in a hotel on the beach in a communist country where the average wage is only USD$15-20. They forget (or don’t understand) that it’s not the socialist economic model that keeps the country going. It is tourism, remittances from exiles, foreign investment (especially China, Brazil, and Canada), and a very innovative black market that propels the economy. Cubans living in towns around Varadero have one of the highest standards of living in the country, because tourists who are treated well often tip well. Cubans who are physicians and engineers and architects know they can’t live on $20/month, so many seek out prime jobs such as bartenders, waiters, maids, and cabbies. When you interact with them at the hotels, you’ll find that they are among the world’s best educated tourism workers.
In addition to hotels and the golf course, Varadero is a pleasant beach town. Al Capone built his beachside home here, and today it is a restaurant. Irénée Dupont, former president of the DuPont Company and one of America’s richest men at the time, built an incredible mansion on the beach several miles to the east. During the 1920’s and 30’s, Varadero was rated as one of the world’s top beach resort areas. Today, its 15-mile long white sand beach and turquoise-green waters are the favorite destinations of many Canadians.