Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: Saskatchewan, Canada
Rissask Report - Guardalavaca, Cuba!
After a dozen trips to Mexico, we finally decided to spread our wings a bit further and try a different locale. Cuba seemed promising as it is very popular with Canadians and there was direct flights from our city.
I have always wanted to go there before Fidel dies and/or communism dies. I think it will be a much different place when that happens, better for tourists anyway, and many things of course will be changing- not all for the better for tourists either, but hopefully much better for the Cubans.
(Oddly enough, our last full day there, February 19th, was the day Fidel announced he was resigning from his government post of Commander in Chief- his brother Raul has been acting President for the past year and a half and...well, we'll talk about that later. )
Which brings me to the politics angle. What would a Rissask report be without some politics and/or opinionated blather?
When fellow Canadians heard we were going to Cuba, all we heard was "cool!" or "I've been there." or "We want to go there." or variations on that theme. But when Americans heard I was going, we were greeted by either (good natured) jealousy- or grim and judgmental silence, depending on their own politics. And since I am a pretty much middle of the road politically, I was kind of torn.
If I go to Cuba, does that mean I am supportive of Communism/extreme socialism, both ideologically and economically?
Am I a complete hypocrite if I denounce their government, then turn around and spend money to help prop it up?
Or, am I of the opinion that the people are happy with Fidel and living how they live- so what if they can't vote freely (look how few people in the ‘free world' even vote anyway!)- after all, they have free education, healthcare and almost free housing- so what if they make an average of $10 a month? We are so materialistic we just can't understand that it's not what's important in life. (Far left liberal viewpoint.)
Or, do I actually not really care that much about their plight and just (selfishly) want to go on a hot holiday somewhere fairly economically, with gorgeous scenery and beaches? (Non-political viewpoint; AKA self absorbed and ignorant.)
What to think...what to think.....so (I admit, after we booked) I read every book on Cuba I could find, both fiction and non-fiction, to figure out what I really though.
I came up with this. Cuba is a beautiful country with a diverse population that has had a very interesting and troubled history, which in turn has made the Cuban people unique and fascinating - and not at all pitiable. The revolution got rid of Batista, who was a horrible, murderous dictator, and along with the corrupt and overly capitalistic Americans in Cuba at the time (many of them mafioso), was not exactly good for the country, to say the least- especially the poor people.
So the revolution was welcomed by that segment of society (as well as some liberal rich people too)- and even today, there are many of those people living in Cuba today, who still remember Batista and say they are better off now. (Flip side, the rich people, most of whom lost property and money, and fled and settled in Miami- weren't happy at all. Naturally.)
Other benefits of Cuban socialism- more equality for women than in many other poor countries, better protection of natural resources, better health for all citizens, low infant mortality and high literacy rates, racism is quite rare, there are very few homeless, programs for the disabled and mentally infirm, very low crime rate compared to other Caribbean countries.
But in general- of course they are not ‘better off' living under communism. I am not that naive nor that red.
Of COURSE it will be a wonderful day when the Cubans get to vote and have other freedoms, they are oppressed right now for sure- anyone seeing the bare shelves and how beggars ask tourists for soap and shoes and not pesos, or anyone who sees how people are afraid to say anything at all about Castro or communism (besides the rote mottos like ‘socialism o muerte!') for fear of being overheard by the Secret Police- can tell that.
But at the same time- I have no illusions that freedom or ‘democracy' necessarily equals happier, healthier people either- check out present day Soviet Union, or hey- how about Haiti or Jamaica? There are many reasons, the US embargo not the least of them by any means, why Cuba is in such bad shape today- and it is as much due to poor organization and stupid rules, stubbornness and pride as anything else.
So, feeling that way, pretty middle of the road- I felt completely at ease with going to visit Cuba.
We took along many things for the local people- pens and crayons for the kids, razors, soap, makeup, hair accessories, socks, hats, work gloves and jewelry for the hotel workers. I don't see how depriving the country of tourist dollars is going to help the average Cuban citizen; it's hardly their fault, after all.
I read on a travel site:
That said....onward and upward with the trip report. (Keep in mind all of the above was written before we even left.)
Non-aggressive Dutch dude
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: Saskatchewan, Canada
After a dozen trips to 8 different areas in Mexico, Don and I decided it was about time to spread our wings a bit and try somewhere in the Caribbean. Cuba was a no-brainer as it is the second or third most popular country as a tropical destination for Canadians (Mexico and Dominican Republic being the other two.) We picked Cuba as we were both wanting to go and see what things were like there before Fidel dies and who knows what happens (see other 'political' thread on that).
We booked back in early November. Two weeks, from February 6th to the 20th. We choose the Hotel Playa Pesquero in Holguin province in the east part of the island, 900 kms from Havana (see map HERE
which is a 5 star, as we were told to go at least a 4 star in Cuba, or the food might not be too great. Apparently the food at the tourist hotels in Cuba has vastly improved in the past few years, but we didn't want to take a chance!
It is pretty economical to travel to Cuba, we paid $5005 for two weeks AI including taxes for both of us. Not too bad at all. We booked with our regular TA on our regular online site.
There was two other couples travelling with us, with their two kids each. They ended up choosing a hotel that had a better kids deal, but it was only 20 kms from ours, close to the town/resort area of Guardalavaca- so we planned to meet up while there a couple times, maybe do a tour together too.
Holguin is in the eastern part of the island, and quite a bit farther south than Varadero and Havana.
We had originally wanted to go to Varadero so we could do a Havana day trip easily (2 hour drive away), but the temps there in winter are often not too great. Cold fronts are common and it can drop to as low as 15 Celsius.
In fact, a co-worker told me he went to Varadero last winter in February and it was the same temperature there for 3 days of the week he went as it was here, 12 Celcius. Uh, no thanks. It's not that far from Florida, after all. Brrr, way too cold for us for a winter tropical vacation, thanks!
So we choose Holguin. And we were glad we did- we had beautiful weather the entire two weeks, 28-30 Celsius every day, and it rained only once at 3 AM one night. Not too windy, but a nice ocean breeze you cool you off. I took along warmer clothes in case, and I never wore anything but tanks and spaghetti strap dresses day and night.
The original capital of Cuba and a very important city historically, Santiago de Cuba, is not far from where we were staying, and we planned on doing a day trip there.
Whereas the majority of people in the western part of the country are of Spanish descent, the majority of people here in the eastern part of the island are either indigenous (Taino Indians) or, mostly (90%-ish) they are descendants of African slaves who were brought by Spain to work on the sugar and coffee plantations.
There is therefore much more of a 'Caribbean island' feel to the eastern area, in terms of the food and music and other cultural aspects, and the predominant religion is Santeria, a mix of African tribal religion and Catholicism. Very interesting.
The whole Eastern part of the island is known as the Oriente and the people as 'Orientales'. (and Oriente is the name of a province here too.) Also even funnier considering Cuba has a not-insignificant population of Chinese people- to just add to the confusion! There is even a Chinatown in Havana.
If anyone is wondering, we didn't get to go see Earnest Hemingway's islands in the stream or his boat or house either, unfortunately. They are located a bit farther west, in the Cayo Coco/Cayo Guillermo area- an island archipelago off the northern coast. Supposedly a very beautiful area, but also quite boring, we heard. There is no towns or anything around there- that is another reason why we decided upon the Guardalavaca area- much more to see and do around there.
Packing for this trip was a lot trickier than packing for a trip to Mexico. Because of the embargo situation in Cuba, the service staff and local people really appreciate gifts as opposed to money. Even the beggars will ask for soap and not pesos, we had read. So while we only had the regular 44 pound max per person allotment, and we still had to pack enough for two weeks, we also wanted to take along other items- that was tough.
We took razors, soap, toothpaste, shoelaces, hair accessories, toothbrushes, socks, and some pencils and pens. We also left some shoes and clothing behind. We were planning on taking Open Water dive certification while there, so we also got permission to bring along a bag of sports equipment- with our snorkel/dive gear and wetsuits, and also an inflatable dinghy (don’t ask) and fishing equipment for Don to fish from shore. After 5 trips to Mexico and lots of trying, this past xmas in Huatulco he actually managed to finally catch a couple of fish from shore-it was a miracle, I tell ya.
He ended up just catching a few smaller fish like yellowtail grunts, and a couple small tarpon. Then he heard later that some people who knew where to fish caught five tuna one day. Now we have to go back for sure. He took the dinghy out a couple of times to the reef to fish too, then when we left we left it for the maid’s kids.
Our plane left Saskatoon at 9:35 AM on Wednesday, February 6th. A GF of mine dropped us at the airport on her way to work, and as she and her husband were off to Jamaica for two weeks two days later, we agreed to pick them up when they returned two days after we got back. That worked out well.
Our flight was direct and non-stop for us, but half full of poor souls from Calgary where they had boarded at 7 AM. Sucked to be them! On the way home we were dropped off first too.That's always nice.
We flew with Sunwing vacations which has been a charter company in Canada for ages, but just this year they moved out west. The plane was a typical charter 737, not a helluva lotta leg room, but no problemo- we're on vacation!
The only real difference we found between Sunwing and the other Canadian charters were they gave us ‘hot towels’ on the way there and ‘cold towels’ on the way home, a glass of champagne right after takeoff and free wine on the return leg. Other than that, it was the same old thing. Five and a half hours of stinky and cramped quarters.
One annoyance was that they played the same damn two movies on the way there as on the way back! Stardust and The Darjeeling Limited. The former was cute, but the latter just plain weird.
We arrived at Frank Pais airport in Holguin city about 5 pm. We had heard that going through Cubans Customs and Immigration would be a bit daunting, not at all, everything went smoothly. They had sniffer dogs (a black lab and the cutest golden cocker I’ve ever seen ) sniffing around the luggage coming off the belt.
Soon enough we had all collected our bags and found our assigned buses and bought a couple cans of Cristal beers for the one hour drive north to the coast. (Cristal is basically Labatt Blue beer, very good- Labatt and Cuba have a joint venture and we actually drove past one of the breweries on the drive to the hotel.)
It got dark about halfway there so we didn’t see as much of the countryside as we would have liked, of course we saw it on the way home. One thing that stands out was that it was fairly green for the winter, and also there were HUGE Royal palm trees scattered everywhere, they were beautiful. Some were at least 80 feet high. Very impressive.
(okay- from now on- pics and more pics!!)
Last edited by Rissask; 02-23-2008 at 07:55 PM..
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: Saskatchewan, Canada
sorry, had to take a break for some chicken curry!
We had chosen, after careful research, a four and a half star hotel called the Playa Pesquero. It was a good choice.
We had never stayed at such a huge resort, we aren’t even really AI people usually! But we wanted a relaxing vacation and going non-AI in Cuba can be done but it’s not very relaxing.
Don was starting a new job after working at our present company for 15 years shortly after we were getting back, so he wanted to basically chill.
But the hotel was wonderful. It was 944 rooms, 16 rooms in each in around 60 bungalows (some closer to the ocean had fewer and more spacious rooms). It was a huge resort, very spread out. I heard almost 100 acres?? When we were there it wasn’t full, but even if it was I doubt it would feel crowded, it’s so spread out.
We were lucky, our bungalow was a one minute walk to the quiet end of the pool, about 4 minutes to the beach, 2 minutes to the lobby or main buffet.
Great I had sourced out which building to ask for beforehand and we got the very one we wanted. The rooms were spacious, a king size bed with sitting area, large balcony, a well stocked- mini bar with beer and pop and water, a coffee maker, hair dryer, tub and shower, hair dryer.....iron and board.....even an umbrella for the rainier times of year!
And sat TV, with CNN , a couple of movie channels , and one channel that played old Seinfeld and Friends type re-runs. Very comfortable. One thing we didn’t take was a plug adapter and converter because the voltage was 220. So please refrain from laughing too hard at my frizzy/curly hair.
Other amenities were a gym (really good one, actually....okay, we only went once though ), a games area with badminton, tennis courts, foosball tables, 4 pool tables (two in the lobby too)- even an air hockey table for all the Canucks.
There was a little rental shop to rent mopeds and they had pedal bikes to take for free. All in good shape.
There was an ice cream parlour
and a beer garden where you could get snacks like bacon wrapped shrimp and spring rolls.
There was a 24 hour a la carte restaurant you could go to anytime, the Trattoria.
Also the night time vegetarian a la carte restaurant had fried or roast chicken during the day. Irony?
7 a la carte restaurants- you get four reservations a week, we went to all 8.You could get lobster and garlic butter (no surcharge) all four of those nights too. I am not a spiny lobster fan, but Don took advantage.
The food in general was a LOT better and more variety than I had been expecting. After hearing horror stories about the bad hotel food in Cuba, I was NOT expecting that! And they had different spices, salt and pepper, steak and BBQ sauces, tabasco, ketchup (from Spain, it tasted more vinegary and sweeter- but good!), mustard, etc. no problems.
After a couple of days we figured out what was really good and where to get it. The pasta bar and the grilling station in the buffet...the best croissants in the world for breakfast in the buffet....coconut yoghurt for breakfast and then coconut ice cream in the afternoon.....the pizza at the hut on the beach...etc. And did I mention those bacon wrapped shrimp?? I even had rabbit the first night...it was good...tasted like chicken. Too many little bones though!
One day of the week they had pigs roasting all over the grounds that were for supper than night. Mmmm.
Last edited by Rissask; 02-23-2008 at 03:25 PM..
Join Date: Aug 2004
Location: Saskatchewan, Canada
The pool is beautiful, free form with islands, it is supposed to be the largest in Cuba. Like, a football field or so in length. It was HUGE. It varies from ankle deep to about 5 feet. It was nicely landscaped and kept really clean.
There is a quiet end and a louder end with a swim up bar.
We mostly stuck to the quiet end and let the partyers have the other end. There was also a basic pool for water volleyball too
and a kiddie area with a pool.
I would say the hotel had mostly French Canadians, then Brits, then English speaking Canadians, then Germans, and a few Italians.
Lots of topless women and men in banana hammocks and quite a few men in Speedos with golf shirts wandering around looking like they forgot to put on pants. I will never get used to that!
oh, as promised, Jacko (I hope you catch it before a mod sees this! )
EDITED MARCH 17th TO REMOVE OBVIOUSLY OFFENSIVE (TO SOME) CONTENT.
Last edited by Rissask; 03-17-2008 at 03:14 PM..