Letter from Cuba #1: The All-inclusive Newbies

Hola from Cuba! When we decided to come for a week here, it was a spur of the moment decision. Dan and I were sitting in our family room missing our annual trek south to get away from Canadian winter. I was skimming through email and came across a travel promotion for a week in Cayo Coco, an all-inclusive package in a new 5 star resort. It seemed like a great deal and we booked without really giving it much thought.

Dan and I have talked about going to Cuba several times, usually thinking of it in the way that we’ve done our European holidays – booking apartments in interesting neighbourhoods, getting a feel for the way the locals live, enjoying the freedom and the privacy that that type of travel brings. We had imagined doing something similar in Cuba – booking an apartment in Old Havana and exploring the island. So this spur of the moment decision was a bit of a surprise to both of us.

We arrived in Cayo Coco at 10:30 pm, almost two hours later than our scheduled flight thanks to snow and freezing rain at home. It was a jolly bus ride to the resort though, fueled by Cuban beer: two for $5.00. 20160324_213221You couldn’t buy one, it was two or nothing. Payable in any currency, even, claimed our guide, in Canadian Tire money. He knew his audience. So I drank the better part of a beverage I rarely drink, exhausted from a long day of travel and the excitement of landing in a foreign country. Dan was delighted. We barreled along dirt roads in the pitch black, careening around corners and jolting over bumps. A lot of bumps. With a running commentary from the Air Canada Vacations representative who kept us entertained with lame but good humoured jokes, encouragements to sign up for a variety of excursions and a plea to contribute to the tip basket. Preferably not in Canadian Tire money. He made a few brave comments about the imminent arrival of American tourists with the lifting of the US embargo, wishing they go to Cuba’s cities but not to Cayo Coco, then reversing himself saying he appreciated American dollars. “We don’t like American policies,” he said, “just their money.”

By the time we made it to the resort, it was after 11. But we couldn’t just check in. First, we had to go to an orientation from the hotel’s Air Canada rep and be fitted for plastic wrist bands, much like the identification bracelets you get when you’re in the hospital. They don’t come off unless you cut them off. Bracelets fastened, the rep handed us our room keys and waved in the general direction of our rooms.

This resort, according to our bus guide, is known by the locals as The Monster. With 1100 rooms contained in more than a dozen buildings like small apartment blocks, the name is fitting. There are no locals living close by; just 25 hotels strung out along a vast stretch of beach. The pathways to The Monster’s rooms are not well lit, perhaps because of limitations on the island’s power draw. We wandered in the dark, asking directions several times from staff who again waved in the general direction. Eventually we found our room, dropped our stuff and went back out in search of food. Only one of the nine restaurants was open at that hour. After more dark wandering following assorted staff waves, we found our way to a table in a snack bar under a giant sunhat, scarfed down hamburgers and lemonade (at midnight!), and made our way back to our room to collapse in exhausted heaps.

In retrospect, we should have realized that an all-inclusive resort – including all the alcohol you can consume – would likely mean a party atmosphere. It’s not quiet here. And there are a lot of people. We’re used to privacy. And quiet. And the ability to eat when and where we want. All-inclusives don’t work that way. I know, it should have been obvious but as I said, this was a spur of the moment decision.

Over breakfast, Dan and I talked about our initial observations and impressions. The food… so so. The atmosphere… a bit sterile, at least at The Monster. We also figure the Cubans will have to up their game once American tourists start descending. New infrastructure for more power, better internet, better food and so on.

After breakfast, we attended another Air Canada briefing, mostly about excursions. Then we stood in a variety of lines: the bank line to get pesos, the customer service line to buy an internet card, the Air Canada line to sign up for a day trip to a couple of Cuban cities and a very long line to make dinner reservations. There are a lot of lines at this all-inclusive including for most meals since they are primarily buffets.

It’s blisteringly hot here – 31 degrees celcius every day in the forecast – and we can’t help but shake our heads at the number of people baking in the sun. Fortunately, most of the kids and babies we’ve seen are wearing hats and are covered up. I do appreciate how at ease everyone seems to be with their bodies. All shapes, all sizes. And nobody seems to be worried about how they look in a bathing suit. When they wear them.

Another thing we didn’t know about this type of resort – people get up early and claim their lounge chairs at the pool and the beach. They leave towels or t-shirts on them, then they go off and do whatever they do, eventually, maybe, wandering back. At any given time, the chairs are almost entirely taken, yet we figure only a third of them have the people who reserved anywhere in the vicinity. Claim for the day, then go about your business, despite the signs saying this is prohibited. So far, like good Canadians, we have obeyed the rule. But we’re leaning dangerously close to scofflaw territory.

After finishing what we referred to as the business part of the day, we headed for lunch (another line) and then to the beach. We eventually found a couple of chairs well down the beach and headed for the ocean. Very, very rocky bottom for a good way out. Sweetie and I held hands, not to be romantic, just to hold each other up. Once in though, it was wonderful. We floated about for awhile, then carefully picked our way back to our beach chairs and books. And I must admit, having a waiter come by with a couple of pina coladas was quite lovely.

On the trek back to our room, there are a number of pools along the way. A couple of chairs opened up at one just as we were passing. We looked at each other, grabbed them and settled in for another couple of hours, despite the noise near the pool bar.

Said Dan, “Have you noticed how the activity around the bar is fairly sedate in the early part of the day and quite raucous by late afternoon? I wonder why.” Snicker, snicker. Perhaps that explains why the all the pools close at 6 pm.

Naps, supper and a dance show at the resort theatre rounded out our first full evening here. Supper was a buffet but we went early so the lines were small. And the dance show? Well, it was … enthusiastic.

Lots of satin, sequins, and beautiful young people with impossibly long limbs doing seemingly impossible things. Vegas-like. But a long way from Vegas. Still, everyone seemed to be having a great time. We are learning to embrace the all-inclusive life.


About saxbergonstuff

I'm a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. When I'm not focusing on that, I'm an educator, facilitator and content designer. When I feel like it.
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