As promised, here’s a review of our week-long vacation in Cuba.
We were traveling from Victoria to Montreal, in order to meet up with everybody else on our trip at the Montreal airport. We made our way the day before our Cuban departure, sleep in a hotel by the airport that had a shuttle service and had no issue with that at all. We repeated the same experience on the way back with the same service. I had to call for the shuttle bus to come and get us and it was there within 20 minutes. From Montreal, our flight to Santa Clara was close to 4hrs-long, followed by a bus ride of about 90 mins to the resort. I was ready to go sit and relax when we finally got to the resort. The girls traveled beautifully, sleeping on my lap at times, playing, eating, iPad-ing, and signing songs. Béatrice was being potty-trained and we put her in pull-ups for the flights, but she was good about asking to use the washroom and mostly ended up with a dry diaper after the flights.
Currency: If you love in Canada, don’t bother changing your money for some US funds before your departure as you get penalized once in Cuba. Their currency for tourists is the CUC (a tourist cuban peso) and isn’t worth anything outside of Cuba. Bring your Canadian currency and change it once in Cuba (either at the airport or at some local currency office (we had one on the resort with the rate exchange similar to the US $ ($1 CAN = $0.70 CUC). Make sure you get rid of all your CUC before exiting the country as you won’t be able to do so once back in Canada.
Medical Clinic: Yep, I even got to try this one out! I had started an eye infection on the flight from Edmonton to Montreal and despite using Polysporin eyedrops for 48hrs, it wasn’t improving and I ended up with a huge black eye from the infection, so I hired a cab (1927 Ford!) and made my way to the closest medical clinic on Tuesday. I walked in at 1330, saw the MD at 1332 and walked back out with my bill and prescriptions at 1345. It took a little longer because I had been told by the customer service rep at our resort that I could pay my meds with a credit card. Turned out I couldn’t and had to take a cab to the closest ATM to get some money. My cab driver was nice and waited for me while I sorted all of this and even waited for me while I was being seen at the clinic! I was given steroids, antibiotic drops and anti-inflammatory ointment, all for 50 CUC, including the medical consult. Total cost: 60 CUC including the cab rides. Not too bad!
Cuban Accommodations: We went along on this trip with my parents, my brother and my niece and my brother’s girlfriend (one of my friends :) ) and her kids too. All in all, there were 6 adults and 6 children on this trip. Our resorts was Cayo Playa Santa Maria, located in Santa Maria (north or Cayo Coco). The resort itself was nice enough, but not super luxurious. I seem to remember we had chosen this one because they had a “Kids’ Club”, to which we didn’t end up taking advantage of. Live and learn! The rooms were clean. We had issued with the tub and shower draining properly, and although we had someone look into it for us, it never got resolved. The rooms were done on a daily basis, although sometimes, late in the afternoon when we were trying to get the kids to rest a bit. The fridge was filled with beer, pop and water everyday as well. One thing I was missing when we were there were facecloths. Apparently, they are nowhere to be found in Cuba, so I’d bring a couple if you really can’t do without them. I ended up using a bath mat / towel when I needed one. I think the only drawback was for checking-in. Long line-up, with only 2 clerks at the desk to do 2 buses worth of check-ins: fail! The staff we had to deal with were all very friendly and attentive, on the other hand. AC was available in both the adjoining rooms we had (King bed and 2 twin beds for the girls) as well as a ceiling fan.We never had our patio door open (other than to go hang laundry out on the chairs) as it was too hot to do so with temperatures between 32-35ºC everyday. E only had one day of partly cloudy skies, no rain over the 7 days we were there and saw plenty of heat lightning.
Food: We had a choice of 3 À La Carte restaurants for dinner, but were only able to book 2. All the other time slots had been booked solid after our 2nd day on the resort. My advice would be to go on book those early on in your trip. One of our restaurant was the Asian one and the food was ok, with limited choices for kids. The other one was the Seafood one and only 4 of us ended up going to this one because our reservations was for 7:30pm , after a long day on a Catamaran excursion, on the eve of our departure and the children were too tired to come out to eat. (More on that later).
The buffet was ok in my book. Not terribly bad, not amazingly good. I think, overall, there were only 2 dishes I really didn’t like. Most of the fish I had was absolutely delicious, although, I was the unlucky one with all the bones in the fish. They made a pretty awesome fried rice where you could chose your components, same with omelettes in the morning. You had to be there early though as the lines filled up fast. Not a lot of choices for Whole30-compliant food, but I was on vacation, so I didn’t stress about it. I tried to focus on fruits, meats, vegetables and rice.
Lettuce is almost unheard of there and the only “greens” they had were green bell pepper and cabbage. That got old pretty quick.
I can’t really comment on the booze as I’m not a big drinker. We had wine a few times, I had a Sex On The Beach and a few sips of Mojitos and that’s about it. The drinks were good, from the few I had.
Gym: I had a quick look at the gym (usual treadmills, stationary bikes, some free weights and benches for presses) and the AC wasn’t supper effective in the little facility so I decided to make my own WOD on the beach:
I didn’t time myself, but tried to hustle as best as the 33ºC permitted. I would go in the water to rinse off the sand and cool off before the runs. That was my one and only workout while I was there. My bother had brought his TRX and managed a few more workouts than I did. Good for him for not slacking off!
Spa: Ben and I booked ourselves a 1hr-long couple’s massage and it was nice to go relax while my parents watched the girls. The only thing is they had a musical cue on their CD that told them when to move from limb to limb. It was a bit distracting. We were allowed 1hr of relaxation in the jetted pool, but we hadn’t brought our bathing suits. No problem, we were allowed to come back the next day to enjoy the pool.
Beach: This is where we spent most of our time everyday. We would go after breakfast and never had any trouble finding 12 lounge chairs under the shade. We had brought our own tarp and pegs for shade on the beach and never ended up using it.
There were a lot of big rocks/boulders submerged under the sand where the chairs were and you had to be careful about your steps making your way down to the water. The sand was soft and white and, apparently, the beach had suffered some erosion since the previous year (as per previous vacationers).
The water was a ver clear aqua colour and you spot some barracudas often. We only saw 2 small jellyfish on our entire trip. Depending on the wind, some days the water was calm and others, the waves were a bit stronger.
There were free smaller catamarans excursions (max. 4 people) that lasted about 30 mins and free-kayak rental as well.
Animation was on the beach in the morning and moved over to the main pool in the afternoon. We never partook in the activities as we wanted to sit and relax.
Pools: We had a pool very close to our room and although there was music poolside, I think they closed the pools around 6pm daily, which meant you could get a full restful night of sleep. The pools were well maintained, although lots of sand and oil residue from the sunscreen could be found. The water was hot all the time and even hotter in the afternoons. Finding chairs in the shade was a little harder at the pool than it was at the beach, but we were never there very long and usually retreated to our rooms for some shade and nap time when we’d had enough. The little ones enjoyed the pool more and the big kids enjoyed the ocean more. We compromised by doing the beach in the morning and the pool in the afternoon.
The girls and Ben, playing in the pool
Excursions: There were a few tempting excursions I would have liked to do had we been without kids, but we settled on only the one full day Catamaran excursion. There was one where they flew you into La Havana overnight that I would have liked to do (too expensive with the kids), another one where you went to see Buena Vista Social Club perform live (finished around midnight, again, not happening with the kids) and one where you went into Santa Maria to see the Che Guevara Memorial as well as some of the city and churches. I would have love to learn more about that piece of history, but with temperatures being what they were beach-side, I really didn’t want to drag the kids too far from the water.
The one excursion we settled on was the day-long catamaran excursion. We booked it for our last full day in Cuba, Saturday (so that all the kids could get on for free). Kids are free all the time if they’re 6 and under, and on Saturday, it’s free for kids 12 and under. We had to be ready to go at 0800 which left us ample time to grab breakfast at the buffet (starts at 0700). We hoped on a bus that took us to the marina (20 mins), where we boarded a super clean catamaran, with a crew of 3 on board. There were 2 bathrooms that were kept immaculate throughout the day. The rest of the boat was wiped off of water often and kept immaculate as well throughout the day. We left using the motor for the first part of the day, making our way to the “reef” where we had 1hr to go snorkelling. All kids had to wear life vests and adults who were strong swimmers didn’t have to. Ben brought his GoPro with him so we were able to capture some pretty cool photos and videos.
Once we were done with that, they served us a light snack of tuna salad on crackers. It was a hit with everyone and was gone in minutes! We motored around, until they brought us to a the dolphin sanctuary. This would not have been my choice had it not been included in the day. I’m not a fan of dolphins in captivity, but the girls liked the little show they put on:
Once the show was done, we also had the opportunity to interact with the dolphins. Ben had his gGoPro and took some footage, but it was a bit hard seeing as we had to hold the girls in our arms. We had water up to our chest and the dolphins swam up to us so we could touch them. Our dolphin had one cloudy eye and the other one had plenty of scars on its back… :( We had lunch at the sanctuary of lobster tails for the adults and chicken for the kids. After lunch, we got back on board and Rina needed the First Aid kit (she cut her toe and was bleeding) and the staff was quick and attentive. They teased us with sights of beautiful sandy beaches before dropping us off in a sandbar that was rocky and choppy. Not my favourite part of the day (and I think nobody enjoyed this very much out of our little group). We quickly came back on board and we set out on the water and finally opened the sails and cut off the motor. That was MY favourite part of the day, fo’ sho’!
The music was blaring, people were dancing and drinking and we all had a blast! We came back to the marina, back on the bus and everybody was tired. I debated about going for our dinner reservation (at 7:30pm) at all, but Ben offered to take the girls to the buffet and put them to bed so I could enjoy a last dinner with my parents and brother. His girlfriend fed their brood at the buffet as well so it was just our little family of 4 that night. It was nice to reconnect with that part of my life and although the food was ok, we laughed a lot at my mom’s fear f the gecko that was inching closer on the ceiling and just life in general.
We had to check out at 0545 the next morning, back on the bus at 0645 (late as per Cuban time) to make our way to the airport for our flight at 1145. That was a long wait at the airport, but we managed fairly well. Béatrice sang the whole time she was on the plane and it was bittersweet to say goodbye to all my lovely family. It had been almost 2 years since I’d seen them all and with the cost of flights to go back home, who knows when we’ll be able to afford to go back? That’s also why I didn’t really care about our accommodation or the quality of the food. To me, this trip was about spending time with my family, for my daughters to get to know their cousins and for us all to really soak in the sun and relax. I’d say our goal has been surpassed x 100 and to me, that means a very successful trip!