Thursday, September 19, 2013

One Week in Guardalavaca, Cuba, January 4-12, 2013





Map of the Club Amigo Guardalavaca

Catherine and I had heard so much about the Guardalavaca area, with its numerous hotels and beaches, that finally we decided to check out this place.  Before the trip I had done a rather extensive research online, mainly using TripAdvisor’s forums & reviews and had received plenty of tips and recommendation on choosing the right resort & room, local attractions, getting to Holguin, etc.  Eventually, we booked the Club Amigo Guardalavaca—and on January 04, 2013, after a pleasant 4 hour flight from Toronto (Can Jet), we landed on Cuban soil in Holguin.  After clearing customs, I went straight to the departure area (as per advice on TripAdvisor) to exchange Canadian dollars into Cuban CUCs—indeed, there was no line-up.  The exchange rate was excellent and for $100 Canadian dollars I received 97 CUCs.  In front of the airport it was possible to buy a can of beer for 2 CUCs from a stand (expensive – normally one beer costs 1 CUC in a store).  Canadian dollars (coins or bills) were accepted as well – later I was asked a few times to exchange Canadian loonies/toonies ($1 and $2 coins) into Canadian bills or exchange Canadian currency into CUCs.

View from our Villa

There were a lot of buses at the airport; we were put on the last bus and arrived to the hotel very late, after stopping and dropping off tourists at many other resorts.  However, it was OK, as everyone else had already checked in.  Since we had booked a Villa (again, as per advice from TripAdvisor), we were taken to the Villa section and given a room on the ground floor (vs. on the upper floor) no. 9107.  Catherine was immediately displeased with the room as it was dark, musty and had no balcony.  Apparently, all the other Villas were still occupied with New Year guests and we had to spend the first night in that room.

The Club Amigo Atlantico resembles a small town – and I am not even counting the adjacent Brisas.  The grounds were clean (in spite of some recent TA reviewers claiming otherwise), there was very little evidence of any damage caused by the recent hurricane Sandy.  The resort staff was quite friendly and the chambermaid every day did a great job cleaning our room.  We left her 1 peso and on the last day we gave her some other gifts as well.  Some of the guests staying at the hotel were Cubans (who, I understand, pay different rates from non-Cubans) as well as we saw a few Cubans at the beach and along the shore, as the beach is public.  In fact, we went to the Brisas’ beach a few times, yet when we tried to enter the Brisas’ property, a security guard immediately materialized, advising us that since we were staying at the Club Amigo (blue bands), we could not enter the Brisas.

The "Barracks", the least desired accommodation
The next morning we met an Italian couple who vacation at the resort twice a year.  They recommended that we talk to Barbara, a tour operator in the hotel lobby about helping us to change the room.  While I was attending the newcomer orientation session (which turned out to be totally useless), Catherine contacted Barbara who made a few phone calls to the registration desk and soon we were given a new room on the upper floor (no. 8213): it had a spacious bathroom with a shower, two twin beds, TV set, a small fridge, air conditioner—as well as a balcony, which offered a wonderful view of the ocean and where we spent a lot of time sitting there, listening to rumbling waves, caressing us to sleep each night.  Except for a few small moths and one grasshopper, we did not see any insects in the room (in spite of the balcony door being open most of the time).  One very early morning a very noisy black bird sat on the balcony and later even flew into our room, waking us up.

The Benny More Restaurant
There were a number of restaurants at the resort and we wanted to try each one.  We developed a likening for the outdoor restaurant “Benny More” which served both breakfast and dinners and we had most of our breakfasts there.  In spite of sometimes long wait times, we enjoyed the food (I found the yogurt absolutely deliciously irresistible, it tasted exactly as the yogurt I had in Bulgaria in the mid-1970), but its main attraction was the outdoor location and the view of the ocean.  Once or twice we saw some huge criuse ships on the horizon.  One night we paid extra and had a lobster dinner.

Roasted Pig!
Several times we went for lunch to the “1720” restaurant (in the bungalow section) which had a buffet.  The food was great; once a roasted pig was served, but every day we were able to find something delicious.  I loved fried shrimps!  One evening we tried the vegetarian restaurant.  Sadly, the best thing about this establishment was that it was located in the ‘barrack’ section next to the swimming pool (yes, the same pool Fidel Castro had swum in when the hotel was opened in the mid-1970s – rumour has it that the sacred water in the pool has not been changed since then…), where an aquatic show/water ballet was being performed that evening.  Unlike the show, the dinner was horrible – very salty, unsavoury and way below average – and NOT vegetarian at all!  It seemed they had opened cans of stuff including canned camarones and tasteless shrimps.  A few days later, while waiting for the bus to the airport, one lady said that she and her family wanted to book a dinner at the same restaurant, on the same day we went there, but when she saw the reservation list with only ONE booking, she decided to pass.  Guess whose name she was on that list? Yes… we were those suckers!

Delicious shrimps, tasty pork!
Fortunately, the Italian dinner at the at the restaurant a.k.a. snack bar (vis-à-vis the Benny More restaurant and part of the 24 hour bar) was perfect: the waiter left a whole bottle of very good Spanish red wine on the table, the snack table featured scrumptious cheese, olives and slices of excellent prosciutto and the main course consisted of delectable spaghetti Bolognese and pork cutlet.  The main buffet (just above the lobby in the main hotel building) was O.K., but lacked the outdoor atmosphere and resembled an ordinary, cheap buffet.  Overall, we were happy with our food selection—even the hamburgers and French fries at the 24 hour restaurant were quite good.  Having stayed in three all-inclusive resorts in Cuba, I must still say that the food was the best in the Club Amigo.  It was also nice that there were alternatives to eating inside all the time too.  Darn, I even gained 6 pounds!

It was probably about +30C during the day and about +19C at night.  It rained a few times, yet for no more than 5 minutes at the time.  Usually days were a little cloudy and it was windy. Considering it was early January, we had an A- weather!

Christopher Columbus... I lent him my hands...
There were a few separate beaches at the resort: a very large beach in front of the hotel, two small beaches and one belonging to the Brisas, which we could also use (and which was a stone’s throw away from our villa).  Our favourite was the “Christopher Columbus” beach, where an old monument of the explorer stood, albeit without arms.  The beach was cozy and intimate, allowed us decent swimming and snorkelling, although I did not see a lot of fish or other exotic sea creatures.  Supposedly if you bring bananas, fish will come to feed on them.  I did not encounter any jellyfish or other harmful sea life, but one tourist complained of apparently being stung by something in the water.  The tides were not very significant, but at one point we had to move our beach chairs as waves started washing over our stuff.  There was another small beach towards the villas – on the day of our departure a wedding took place there, between a German groom and Cuban bride.

We saw plenty of small lizards everywhere.  Some crossed the sidewalks just before we approached, their tails coiled or slightly upright (they resemble chipmunks, ubiquitous in Ontario), others could be seen on leaves, cacti or even balconies.  At night we saw a big, colourful frog.  There were a few cats in the resort looking for food, yet they were very picky and ignored some of the food people left for them.  We saw only one dog at the resort.

There was a pathway in front of our Villa leading to the Brisas.  During the first two days, an older Cuban man played his guitar and made grasshopper trinkets from nearby palm leaves.  Although he did not outwardly asked us for gifts, we gave him some ‘regalos’ we had with us.  We talked a little with him (he spoke some English).  Yet eventually he was apparently asked by security guards to leave the property—probably he overstayed his welcome.

Inside the Cigar Store
There were free bikes for rent at the resort and we went for a ride to the nearby “town”—which consisted of some dilapidated apartment buildings, but we were told that some apartment units are very nice and well maintained; we even saw a few “casa particular” signs.  Since it was windy, we never managed to use any of the pedal boats, kayaks or sailboats available for tourists.  One word of caution: in the hotel lobby, I saw a French-speaking gentleman sitting in the chair, his whole leg in a cast. Apparently he was hit by a boat while swimming.  There were also several scooters for rent.  The employee in charge of rentals and one tourist both told us that it was a good idea to know how to ride those scooters, as there had been a number of accidents.  When I jokingly asked one Cuban guy working at the resort if it was possible to ride those scooters to Miami, he said, “if it were possible, all Cubans would have already left Cuba!”

There were always several horse buggies in front of the hotel, offering to take tourists for nearby excursions – as well as a few taxi cabs were also available.  The cab driver I once spoke to was fluent in English.  Next to the hotel was a thriving market, where Cubans were selling art carvings, cigars, toys, belts, etc.  A lot of tourists from other resorts arrived by free shuttle bus just to shop at this market.  I bought a wooden pestle & mortar for a steal.
A German-Cuban wedding at one of the small beaches

Friendly security guards were posted everywhere (mostly during the day); they must have been the most bored people in the resort!  I spoke to some of them (one was posted just across from my room’s balcony) and asked them if there were any problems at the resort – invariably, they said ‘no’.  Perhaps if you want to improve your Spanish, they would make great conversation partners!
In front of the Santa Maria snack bar (behind the main building) stretching exercises were conducted every day at 10:00 am (Cuban time 10:15 am).  They were better than nothing but lasted for only 15-20 minutes and were somehow always disorganized.  Mats and music were provided.  Incidentally, one of the Cuban instructors said she was lawyer (‘abogada’).

Canadian Consulate
The resort had one exchange office (Cadeca) in the bungalow section which offered very good rates.  An armed security guard was inside and only let in one tourist at a time.  Interestingly, once we saw a few armed cops on the main beach too.  The bungalow section appeared to be quite nice, yet it was farther from the ocean than the villas.  For that reason I would certainly prefer to stay in a villa close to the ocean.  Several meters from the bank was a... Canadian Consular Office!  Yes, there was a Canadian flag, proudly flowing from a tall pole.  We went in and spoke to the consular officer.  She said that in case of a lost passport, it could be replaced within a few days (must be shipped by courier from the Canadian Embassy in Havana).  The office also dealt with Canadians having legal problems.

The store in the main building lobby had cold beer & other drinks as well as rum, cigarettes, shirts and some snacks.  Postcards (1 CUC or postage paid for 1.60 CUC), stamps (0.85 CUC), books and CDs could be bought from a kiosk located under the Las Acadas restaurant in the main building.  I tried to buy the Cuban daily newspaper, “Granma”, but to no avail, the store only had several older issues of “The Havana Reporter” (in English).  A nice cigar store (that also sold rum) was located near the Cadeca office, in the bungalow section, close to the Canadian Consulate.

Horse-drawn carriages were waiting in front of the hotel
One day we met a Canadian lady who had been coming to this resort since the 1970s and she entertained us with a few amusing stories: once in the mid-1970s she came with a group bringing lots of Bibles to Cuba – she was detained and interrogated, but eventually they let her go, along with the Bibles.  She said that at that time there were plenty of soldiers at the airport, armed with machine guns and going through the customs was a very long and unpleasant experience.  She also showed us the remnants of some buildings along the shore (between the two small beaches) – she still remembered private homes there, whose occupants/owners cooked for tourists – yet eventually they were evicted to apartment buildings and their houses demolished.  I can only imagine how valuable their properties were, considering their perfect location!  Of course, Cuba has changed a lot since then and it is rapidly changing.

The Cuban man who invited us to his home
During our stay at the Amigo, we took a few trips from the resort.  As there was a hop-on-hop-off open-air, double decker bus stopping at every nearby resort, we hopped on and went to the Museo Chorro de Maita (we did not visit the 15th century Arawakan Indian village located across the road from the museum).  It is burial ground: discovered in the 1980s, it shows some of the 108 skeleton of the Taino Indians (as well as at least one of a Spaniard).  One of the skeleton was positioned face down; we were told that individual must have been ‘mala persona’ (a bad person).  It was certainly something worth seeing!  While in the museum, we befriended an English speaking Cuban.  He showed us a photo in the museum, dating to the time the graves were discovered and his little sister was in one of them.  He invited us to his home up the road (damaged in the hurricane Sandy – he was building a new one next to it) and served us very black, sweet and freshly brewed coffee which had just been roasted over open fire.  Walking along the village’s rugged road, visiting other homes (many with thatched roofs) and just seeing how real Cubans lived was a very memorable (and also a little sad) experience.  
Inside his house
Since the bus was leaving the village for the hotel at about 1:10 pm, we went there the next day to further explore this place – which was, incidentally, so different from the Club Amigo… Along the road we saw some absolutely beautiful houses, as well as very primitive huts, with thatched roofs, often partially damaged (apparently by the recent hurricane).  Perhaps one’s wealth dependent on the kind of work (e.g., in the tourist industry, with access to hard currency) or having relatives abroad who regularly sent money.  We were told that tarps were in demand as they made excellent protection against leaky roofs – the fellow who invited us to his house also used a tarp given to him by a Canadian tourist to patch up his damaged roof.

Efrem and his taxi
Yet the main trip from the resort was to Holguin and Gibarra.  One of TripAdvisor’s members, Candy (a.k.a. Candysita2) had recommended a driver (Efren) from Holguin (a former university professor of the English language—one of Cuba’s idiosyncrasies); we called him the day before and he showed up in the morning.  He was a very talkative gentleman and we were able to ask him a lot of questions; thus, our ride was very pleasant and educational.  First, we drove to the town of Gibara, where we spent a few hours wandering about the town’s narrow streets.  We saw a cigar factory and went to a new hotel that had just been opened (Hotel Ordono).  


Gibara
A local Cuban guy joined us and was walking with us, but did not really want any money (supposedly he was a ‘jintero’, a hustler).  Eventually we went to a bar and had cold beer and gave him a few gifts.  Later we had lunch at the Los Hermanos (an excellent casa particular and private restaurant) where we also met Candy who was staying there.  Then we went to Holguin and drove to the Hill of the Cross (‘Loma de la Cruz’) from where one can admire a breathtaking view of the town and adjoining area (Catherine only wished she had requested to do it at sundown).  Later went to the town’s center, walked around for one hour, then sat in the square.  The driver showed us a very interesting ‘mural’, showing the history of Holguin (or even Cuba).  While sitting at the main square, twice Catherine had her offer to give away perfectly good bananas to beggars snubbed.  They wanted CUCs instead.  I only wish I could have stayed longer in Gibara and Holguin!  We were back at the hotel about 8 pm and gave the driver a bunch of Canadian and American magazines as well as a very recent issue of “The New York Times” which I had bought at the airport in Toronto.

Loma de la Cruz
While speaking with Cubans, I did ask them about the recent changes in Cuba.  In general, they were very supportive and liked the changes, although I am sure that the newly self-employed must have had plenty of problems with procuring supplies and dealing with the government bureaucracy.  One Cuban said that all the changes were very good for Cuba and that the government was doing the right thing.  “It’s a pity, however”, he said, “that it took the government over 50 years to realize that such changes must be made”.  Unfortunately, after the Revolution, Cuba picked the worst possible political system, entirely based on the outmoded and ineffective Soviet model, effectively stifling even minute signs of private enterprise and inventiveness.  Sorry, comrades, but you were wrong—and you know it!

The Holguin airport has several stores (one duty free) selling a variety of rums, liquors, vodkas, cigars, cigarettes and other souvenirs, including excellent, cheap honey.  So, I made all my alcohol and tobacco purchases there so that I did not have to drag the heavy bottles from the hotel. It was also possible to exchange money inside the airport, after clearing the customs.  While at the airport, I saw a few rather sizable boxes of cigars confiscated by the customs and one tourist spent about 30 minutes trying to persuade the custom officers to let him keep his four boxes of cigars (by my estimation, they were worth about 2,200 CUCs) – eventually, he got to keep them.  While waiting for our plane, we looked at the arrival/departure schedule and saw a few planes from Miami—despite the official embargo and the lack of regular flights between the USA and Cuba, a lot of American charter planes fly to Cuba, mainly with tourits of Cuban origin or organized tours of Americans who obtained an official permit to visit this country.
Very interesting mural in Holguin



Loma de la Cruz, Holguin
It was our fifth visit to Cuba and as always, it was another excellent trip!  Even though whenever I go to Cuba, I always go with an open mind (and with “Es Cuba” in mind), I enjoyed my holiday very much no matter what.  We had no problems with the hotel – our room had an awesome ocean view, the food and atmosphere were great, the weather almost perfect… what else can I ask for?  I am looking forward to going to Cuba again… and again!

P.S.

In January, 2015, we again went to the Club Amigo Guardalavaca: http://ontario-nature.blogspot.ca/2015/12/one-week-at-club-amigo-guardalavaca.html





10 comments:

  1. nice post - i'm going in december. woo!

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  2. I am very passionate about traveling and this time I want to visit cuba with my family. Is there any good family tour package for four members?

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  3. Check out this site: www.tripcentral.ca. It's an excellent site and we always buy our Cuba vacation packages from them. And all the prices you see INCLUDE taxes!!!

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  4. We are headed to Cuba for the 2nd time on April 20th for one week, and this time we are staying at Club Amigo, and can NOT wait to get there....We got a fantastic deal directly through WestJet...5 people for just over $4100. all taxes in!!!

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    1. I'm sure you will enjoy your stay! We spent one week in January, 2015

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  6. Si vous voulez de belle photo soumarine et en toute sécurité demander "Miguel" un sauveteur a la plage publique qui fait des photo aussi. Très très belle photo. Et pour l'hôtel rien de mieux. J'y vais a chaque année et toujours de plus en plus hâte d'y retournée a chaque fois. 😂

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  7. Demander "Miguel" a la plages publique pour de belle photo soumarine. C'est un sauveteur.et pour l'hôtel c'est super j'y vais a chaque année et j'ai toujours hâte d'y retourner a chaque fois.

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