Tourist Cuba

Playa Esmeralda

In my part of the world, when you get sick of winter, you head for a sun holiday in Florida USA, Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Retired “snowbirds” spend several months in Florida; working folks choose a week or two on a Caribbean island. Some pay the price to stay on wealthier islands with less economic disparity, like the Bahamas or Barbados. The rest are on a budget, so they choose the DR or Cuba. They (now we) usually stay at an all-inclusive resort which has little connection to the way real people live on that island.

I will talk about the real Cuba in my next post.

Until now, I had only travelled to 2 sun destinations – Mesa, Arizona and Disney World, Florida. Neither of them was a beach vacation. I’ve always travelled to visit relatives, and beyond that, I travel for culture – art, plays, concerts, architecture, history – and food! Staying at a resort to relax in the sun didn’t interest me; unlimited free drinks by the pool interested me even less. I thought someday I’d go to a sunny place that had ruins to explore, like Chichen Itza. But not until I had seen some of my other dream destinations, like Dublin and Reykjavik!

In November, my brother booked a week in Cuba with his girlfriend for early April, and he sent out a request for others to join them. Out of the blue, I said, “Why not?” and paid the deposit. Why? They’d already chosen a travel agent and a resort. They’d been to Cuba 3 or 4 times and could guide us through the logistics of travelling to a communist country. We’d have a chance to do something completely different for us, but with seasoned travellers. There would be no decisions and no detailed itinerary. My brother was quick to assure me we didn’t have to spend all our time together! Why not relax in the sun? I could read. I could swim. Why not have a drink or two by the pool?

The worst that could happen was:

  • I would read a lot of books
  • I would eat a lot at the buffet
  • I would hide out to avoid the hot sun and the crowds

Didn’t sound so bad.

Other than reading some reviews of the resort and looking at a map, we didn’t research much, but we asked my brother a lot of questions.

For the rest of the post I will refer to my brother and his girlfriend as Brett and Tina. We were joined on the trip by a couple they knew and we’d never met, Gavin and Carrie.

Throughout March, I experienced a strange cognitive dissonance as we completed the anti-poverty Food Basket Challenge while getting ready for a major holiday. I hoped to spend only $100 on clothes for the trip. Instead of cruise or beach wear, I thought that workout wear and my own summer wardrobe should suffice. I spent $127 on one tankini, one rash guard, water shoes, running shorts, 2 tank tops, a ball cap and a casual sun dress. Cuba has excellent medical care but a shortage of medicines and supplies, so I brought a stocked first aid kit ($53) in case we had any minor ailments. And I bought some school supplies to leave for the locals.

We made a major mistake. Our flight had a stop in Toronto, so we decided to combine trips, go early to visit Link in Toronto for a few days, then meet our Toronto-Cuba flight. We were given a laughable discount for dropping the Halifax to Toronto leg of the trip, then we had to book our own fares for the changed portions, at full price. This was much more than we would have paid if we planned a separate trip to Toronto at a different time of the year. To top it off, we had to travel with two sets of clothing – one for 5C and the other for 30C! We considered using airport storage, but connection issues meant we’d risk not being able to pick it up on the way back.

Live and learn is all I will say about that!

Our home away from home

The all-inclusive package included airfares, ground transportation, rooms, food and drink. I had never booked an all-inclusive vacation before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Brett said the resort they chose was a 5 Star but I assumed that would be in relation to what’s available in Cuba – maybe it would be like a 3 star anywhere else?

Based on stories from friends and co-workers, trips to Cuba are available toward the end of the tourist season for 1000 CDN or less, per person. That’s the reason everyone goes, because it’s a cheap week in the sun. Mostly no one minds a basic room and food, as long as there is a nice pool and beach. You can expect crowds. There is some partying (à la Spring Break) but not as much as in the DR, which is an even cheaper destination. Some people seek out resorts with casinos, discos and beach parties.

Cuba Map

Our resort was at Playa Esmeralda, a gorgeous beach near Guardalavaca in Holguin province. It’s at the opposite end of the island from the more popular resorts in Havana and Varadero. When our plane landed, we descended stairs to the tarmac and proceeded to Customs (Aduana) where we turned in our declaration cards and received tourist visas to place in our passports. All luggage was inspected on its way to the carousel.

The airport is in the city of Holguin (pop. 300,000) and from there it’s a one-hour bus ride through the very quiet countryside to the resorts. The first thing I noticed was that the landscape was bone dry because we were 5 months into the 6-month winter dry season (Nov-May). We saw majestic Royal Palm trees, and horses and goats grazing, and a few signs of the Castro regime, like VIVA FIDEL spelled out in stones, and a billboard reading Tenemos y Tendremos SOCIALISMO (We have and will always have socialism, i.e. communism).

There were about 10 resorts in the district, and our beach was shared by two resorts, with 350 and 450 rooms, both owned by a company from Spain. Ours was adults-only.

On arrival, we bought Cuban currency. You can’t buy it outside the country or leave with it. Although the system is supposed to be phased out, they still have two currencies: one for Cuban residents and one for tourists, although there is more crossover now. One CUC is pegged to one USD (1.35 CDN). A local Cuban peso is worth about 0.04 USD.

Aqua ballet which took place on the pool deck and in the pool

Lobby bar. Cuban coffee was divine!

The resort had free snorkelling gear, scuba excursions, paddle boats, kayaks, catamarans and windsurfing. There was entertainment in the lobby bar every night, which proved to be a combination of music (Cuban, old time rock and roll, pop and “chanteuse”), dance shows and an athletic aqua ballet!

Resort

Room

The rooms were grouped into cabanas which housed 8 to 12 rooms, all lovely, with their own little balconies. The three of us couples were all placed in different cabanas throughout the property, which was not a bad thing! We met at agreed times for the dinners and evening entertainment; otherwise we ran into each other throughout the day at the pool or beach.

Guests received tickets to book a meal at each of the 4 restaurants, and the rest of the week’s meals were at an extravagant buffet, plus there was a snack bar, beach bar, pool bar, lobby bar, and room service.

Cute overload – kestrels!

The buffet was in a large open-air space. To our amusement, the resort hired a falconer – someone who flies their trained hawks around to scare off other birds. He used adorable little kestrels. We visited them regularly! We joked that the diners would not like to see a kestrel take down a sparrow during dinner 😊

Buffet meal with cucumber, cheesy eggplant, paella, lentil salad, broccoli, roasted peppers, plantains, squash and chickpea salad

At every meal I had piles of tropical fruit: pineapple, mango, papaya, guava and watermelon. It was spectacular! At lunch and dinner, there were soups, stews, a carving station, a grill with a choice of about 15 kinds of meat and fish, salads, breads, cheese and deli meats, pasta, pastries and squares (bars) and ice cream. I fared very well, but I would have liked more Cuban-style food. I appreciated the plantains and the rice and beans! For hot dogs, fries and pizza, you had to go to the separate snack bar, but I didn’t miss them.

“Mediterranean” Restaurant

By contrast, the onsite restaurants tried to emulate the cuisine of other countries with mixed results. All of the food was good, but didn’t bear much resemblance to the originals. For instance, the “falafels” seemed to be small, flat, fried discs made of chick pea flour, aka socca bread. Needless to say, the Cuban restaurant was the best. All the restaurants had “prix fixe” style menus – you chose a starter, a soup, an entrée and a dessert. And all the house wines were excellent!

Halfbeak (not my photo)

Spiny Sea Urchins (not my photo)

I looked forward to snorkelling the most. Brett loaned me a mask and snorkel back home, and I practiced in the swimming pool a few times before the trip, to get my confidence up. Conveniently, there was a coral reef at our beach! The surf was enough to knock me off my feet while I got my fins on, but nothing serious. On the 5-minute swim to the reef, I saw really cool halfbeaks or needlefish. On the reef, I went gaga over the spiny sea urchins. By the way, this was the first time I ever swam in a warm sea. It was 28C. Our ocean beach at home gets to 15 in the summer!

We went snorkelling 3 times and Brett also went on a scuba excursion (he has prior training).

Ribbons of washed up shells and corals on the beach

Rom and I walked the length of the beach (1 km) several times. The resort guests read and napped in the shade and almost no one actually swam or walked on the beach.

The temperature was 27-32 every day with just one overcast day; naturally, we had booked a boat trip that day, but it worked out well to be out on the bay and not get sunburned.

Pool overlooking ocean

Tina, Carrie and I did aquacise one day. Rom and I swam in the pool twice a day, and I had my first drink at a swim-up bar! Apart from the pool bar drinkers, again, the pool was very underused and all the visitors stayed on the deck sunbathing. We also liked the fitness centre, which only had a smattering of users. With all that activity, we could eat what we wanted. Now I wonder how much travel illness is caused by drinking, because we suffered no ill effects, but the rest of our party had a bad day or two. I’d say I had two drinks a day – two more than I would have had at home!

My wardrobe proved to be quite spartan compared to my travel companions’. They had a different dress and sandals and accessories for every evening, and several bathing suits. I can see the appeal of dressing up every night for the dinner and entertainment. To be honest, I felt no need to compete and I was satisfied with what I had brought. Especially since half of each suitcase was packed with cold-weather gear for Toronto!

The resort had a Cuban “house band.” Everywhere we travelled, on and off the resort, we would hear bands play La Bamba and Guantanamera. I tried to keep in mind that every day was someone else’s first day in Cuba. We had a laugh when one of the bands warmed up by playing the Game of Thrones theme song!

Throughout our stay, I was intrigued by the birds, lizards, trees and other plants at the site.

Wifi was available in the lobby if you picked up a guest pass. I checked my email, Facebook and weather once a day, but I was happy to have my screen time restricted!

So. Seven days and nights of tropical relaxation. Would I do it again? You bet. Every winter? No, there are too many other places, especially cities, we want to travel. Since our return, though, we’ve both been obsessed with Cuba and we are constantly looking up facts. I can see a casa particular in my future (a Cuban home stay). I picked up about 100 words of Spanish (easy if you know French) and I want to keep learning.

You’ve just heard about the cushy, never-lift-a-finger experience of Canadian tourists. Tune in next time to hear about what Cuba is like for Cubans.

Have you visited a sun paradise? Or do you live in one?

11 comments

  1. Fabulous recap! As an Aussie, the swim up bars are a common site in Asia. I’ve never done an all inclusive style holiday – but have ended up in resorts that clearly have a planeload of such travellers.

    I’ve been to Cuba and stayed in a Casa. It was SO hot whilst I was there, I don’t recall doing very much. Recall doing a walking tour and ending with lots of mojitos in a bar with a statue of Hemingway (I think?); and a beach visit where there was a band playing and people dancing! I actually flew to Cuba out of Montreal cause back then the US wouldn’t fly to Cuba. I came “out” via the Bahamas which just felt the US!

    I didn’t find the food to be of much note in Cuba. Not bad, just not that interesting. I’m glad I visited- I bought a heap of art!

    Based on my current travels; I can totally see the appeal of every step planned out, and at one cost. But I do love the surprise of “hidden gems” or more just discovery.

    • Didn’t know you’d been to Cuba, Sarah! I don’t know my tolerance for heat in a non-air conditioned room. Did you buy art prints to frame? By local artists?

      • I assume they were local. I got a canvas painted nude lady – i think of her as my alter ego. Then I have some water colours, and some Sepia photos. All are framed and hang in my home. Actually, I bought a lot of art in my earlier travelling years, but not so much anymore…

  2. You know I live in a sun paradise. All your swimming and beachside firsts are common things. I’m always disappointed by beaches in most places as Australia has the best beaches. Mr S doesn’t like all-included resort packages normally as he hates just hanging around for any length of time. We have to be active so would be walking and swimming like you and Rom. One of my favourite resort islands is in the Whitsundays. It was badly affected by a cyclone. I’d love to go back. It is expensive as the wages and conditions are Australian. Which is why many Aussies head to Thailand or Malaysia or Bali.

    I’d love to go to Cuba but not for a resort. I love that they held firm against such massive US pressure. I’m a bit of a socialist. But to fly all that way to sit by a pool would be a waste for me.

    • Cuba’s communism sounds beneficial and socially progressive but they still have a draconian regime with serious human rights abuses. More on that soon!

  3. We used to vacation only in cities or in the mountains for hiking, and we looked down on the beachgoers, but we’ve been incorporating more relaxing time into our travel. For example, when we went to Thailand, about half the time we spent on a spectacular beach on a secluded island, the other half in cities. All that tropical fruit every morning, the crystal clear bathtub temp ocean water, and the animals! One trip definitely changed my mind about beach vacations.

    • I feel the same! One thing I didn’t anticipate is all the time spent outdoors in nature (not just around resort buildings). Loved the plants, animals and rocks 🙂

  4. We went to Cozumel, Mexico two years ago and liked it so much that we’re going back this summer. I never thought all-inclusive resorts would be my thing until we stayed at that one. It was just so relaxing and had good snorkeling right off the pier out front. It sounds a lot like where you went actually. We went with family who had been before, which made it even more relaxing for me–no planning!

  5. Fiona

    It sounds (and looks!) heavenly! It thrills me a little that you did enjoy it. I really look forward to hearing about the local life outside the resort as well.

    We went to Bali, Indonesia in June last year. We stayed in a resort with swim-up bar as well. I’m normally keen for what Mr D calls ‘experiential’ trips, while he loves nothing more than beach/pool relaxation. But our Bali trip was a bit of both and amazing. Would definitely do it again!

    • I don’t know when we’ll do another sun vacation but I like having explored that option and knowing what it’s like. I am sure by next March we’ll be shovelling snow and wishing we had booked another week away!

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