Sunday, October 30, 2016

PLAYA ANCON, CUBA—HOTEL ANCON AND TRINIDAD—JANUARY 10-18, 2016



In January, 2010 we had gone to Cuba and spent one week at the Costa Sur Hotel. During that trip, we had visited the lovely city of Trinidad, traveled by an ancient steam train to Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), taken a day-long trip to Topes de Collantes (Collantes’ Highs) in the Escambray Mountains range and spent half a day wandering in the village of La Boca. We had enjoyed the trip so much that we decided to come back one day. Indeed, six years later we were embarking on our second trip to that area—and eleventh to Cuba.
 
Welcome to Hotel Ancon!
On January 10, 2016 we arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto. Because it was a Hola Sun vacation package, we had to pick up tourist cards from the Hola Sun representative at the airport (otherwise we were getting them on the plane). While waiting for our Cubana flight, Catherine noticed a rather ominous black-painted Airbus 320 on the tarmac.

“Perhaps it was used to transport important guests to a funeral of a prominent individual”, I said jokingly.

To our surprise, soon WE were boarding this very plane (hopefully not flying to any bereavement services)! As I found out later, this particular aircraft (LY-COM) was 21 years old and leased by Cubana from Avion Express—probably Cubana got an extra discount for accepting this kind of a rather uncommon and unappealing color, analogously to car dealers offering discounts for cars painted with gloomy and unpopular colors!

Since Cubana allowed two check-in pieces of luggage, 23 kg each and one 10 kg carry-on (yes, 56 kg or 123 lb. altogether), at least this time we did not have to worry about our bags being overweight! The flight departed on time; we were served quite good food, enjoyed sitting in the first row behind the first class (which cost $150 more) and chatted with an interesting gentleman married to a Cuban woman, the age difference between them being 51 years. As we were approaching Cienfuegos, I could clearly see from the plane’s window Bahia de Cienfuegos, Punta Gorda and even the Hotel Jagua, where we had stayed in January, 2012! At 7:56 p.m., after a 3 hour and 39 minute flight, we landed in Cienfuegos. Since we were never given the custom declaration forms on the plane, everybody was frantically trying to fill them out after clearing the immigration and security. While waiting for our luggage to appear on the carousel, I was able to briefly play with a very friendly and frisky customs dog that was eagerly running around and diligently sniffling at tourists’ baggage. I also wanted to exchange money at the airport, but there were a bunch of people around the exchange window and I decided to pass—luckily, we did bring some pesos with us.
 
Hotel Ancon-the Entertainment Area and two bars
The bus was already waiting for us and as Catherine was taking care of our luggage, I took care of something much more important—namely, walked to the nearby kiosk/restaurant and purchased 3 cans of cold beer (Bucanero) for 1 CUC each—well, first things first! Next to the bus was a police cruiser (a Russian Lada) with a young cop inside and I managed to have a simple conversation with him. He was quite surprised when I told him that in Ontario it was illegal to drink beer on the bus or just in any public places, as I was doing while talking to him.

“You see”, I said, “in this respect Cuba has much more freedom than Canada”.

The bus ride to the hotel took 90 minutes and we engaged in conversation with a very nice and interesting 75+ gentleman from Pennsylvania, who had been regularly coming to Cuba (through Toronto) since 1995, totally disregarding any US regulations against such trips by Americans. During our stay at the hotel we often chatted with him.

We arrived at the hotel at 10:30 p.m. and we were thrilled to have gotten a 3rd floor room, in the separate, superior ocean-view section—we had selected that section mainly thanks to TripAdvisor’s recommendations.

When a porter showed up to carry our 5 pieces of luggage to the room, Catherine, without looking at the slip she had just acquired from the reception, told him confidently that our room number was ‘312’.

“Are you sure it was room 312?” I asked her.

“Yes, I am sure”, she replied.

Somehow I had a hunch that it would be a good idea to verify this information.

“Let’s take a look at that piece of paper”, I insisted.

She pulled out the voucher… and it clearly said, ‘room 8312’.

“Well, I was close enough, just off by one digit”, she said frankly. After all, for Catherine it was such a minor mistake…

The hotel employee carried the bigger luggage pieces upstairs and we tipped him $5.00 Canadian (as we did not have too many pesos); he was visibly displeased with the amount of the tip. Yeah, many Cubans working in the tourist industry had become spoiled, believing that they deserved tips which in no way were commensurate with the level of services they performed.

Incidentally, when we were sipping cappuccino or Spanish coffee at the outdoor patio outside the lobby, we could actually see room 312 and I was always laughing that we almost ended up there!

HOTEL

The main hotel building was very similar to the Hotel Tropicoco near Havana (Playa Este), where we had stayed in 2009. Made of concrete, the hotel was built by the Soviets in the 1980s (according to the inscription, the Grand Opening took place on October 15, 1986) and in one word, it was ugly. The saving grace was that it did allow a view of the ocean from the walkways as it was perched on leg-type supports, as well as it had a very nice beach and of course, was close to the charming town of Trinidad.
 
Our room 8312, in the Superior Section
Incidentally, one Cuban man told us that there were plans to demolish the Hotel Ancon within the next several years and build a golf course. I do not know if it is true, but considering its totally obsolete, antiquated and dreadful Soviet architecture, I would not be surprised at all if one day the hotel was gone. It would be sad, however, if the next door neighbor, the Brisas, were torn down too.

The superior, ocean view section (where we stayed) was built about 17 years ago and was much nicer than the original part of the hotel. There was a swimming pool, but it was closed (not that we were ever planning to use it) and probably had not seen water for several months; obviously, the swim-up bar was closed too ;). There were two bars near the entertainment area, one served quite good sandwiches, hamburgers and French fries and the other one offered various drinks, including cold beer—bring a big mug! Another two bars were in the lobby area; we often used the one close to the patio, which was open in the evening and served excellent cappuccino and Spanish coffee. On the lower level (below the lobby) were two stores (tiendas) selling alcohol, clothes, postcards, souvenirs and the like. There were also other vendors, offering carvings, arts and crafts, postcards, books and the like. A family of cats wandered around on the hotel’s property and some were quite nice and tame; twice they followed us to our room and stayed with us for a while.

There was also a massage service at the very end of the lower level in a separate room off the ‘gym’, by appointment only. Catherine had a 1 hour booking for 15 CUC which she sad was pretty good. In addition, there was a wine restaurant, you could pay extra and reserve a meal & wine tasting for the evening. We never saw anyone in it.
 
View from our window
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE BANK…

Besides, there was a bank in the hotel, which was very convenient. I successfully exchanged money there in the beginning of our stay. Regrettably, my second attempt turned out to be a total fiasco. On Saturday around 9:00 a.m., before breakfast, I went downstairs to the bank to exchange money, but it was closed. I asked the sales lady in the nearby tienda if she knew when the bank would be open; she said it was closed on Saturday, but the reception upstairs (in the hotel lobby) could exchange money.

Thus I went to the reception, only to be informed by the receptionist(s) that it was impossible to exchange money there; instead, she suggested that I try going to a bank in Trinidad (!). As I always endeavor to double check everything (especially in Cuba), a few minutes later I asked the public relations lady (whose desk was next to the reception window) about the bank downstairs. Lo and behold, according to her, the bank would be, after all, open today, but around noon, since the exchange rate had not arrived from Havana yet and sometimes it did not come until noon.
 

Around 11:00 a.m. I went to the bank and it was still closed; I was hanging around it for next 30 minutes, but to no avail. So, I again asked at the hotel reception when it would open—this time I was told that the bank employee was on lunch. For another 30 minutes I kept checking whether or not she was back, yet the bank’s door was closed shut.

Finally, for the second time I asked the tienda sales lady if she knew when the bank employee would be back from her lunch.

“The bank is closed on Saturday”, she repeated.

“It’s not what I was told in the hotel reception”, I said. “The bank employee is supposedly having her lunch”.

She looked at me incredulously and briskly called the reception; after a brief conversation she told me to go there to change my money. Indeed, the reception employee (the same I had spoken to in the morning) was expecting me and without further ado exchanged my $100 Canadian into 68 CUCs (albeit a few days ago I had received 70 CUCs at the bank downstairs).

This whole episode left a rather bitter taste in my mouth—after all, for several hours of my precious vacation time I was chasing after a non-existent employee!


BEACH

The beach was nice and sandy, there were loungers and palapas, but it was quite difficult to get a lounge chair—unless you ‘reserved’ it early in the morning by placing something on it. To be exact, it was Catherine who religiously took care of this issue early in the morning, at 7:00 a.m. The first morning she put 2 old worn towels on 2 chairs at 7:00 am, only to return a few hours later and find a couple occupying the chairs and no towels to be seen. She politely asked the British couple if they had seen the towels and they pointed to beside the chairs. They had apparently blown off. Soon after Catherine had clothes pins and weighted bags to secure her lounger. She later realized she should have asked the couple if they were staying at the Ancon—she was positive they were not and she would have asked them to vacate as we ended up with a very poor area to sit in that first day. In fact, we could not even sit together. Later we noticed that some people occupying lounge chairs did not have any wrist bands—many tourists from town (i.e., Trinidad) arrived every day by bus to enjoy ‘la playa Ancon’ and perhaps some of them simply used hotel beach loungers. It was a pity that security guards did not make sure that lounges were used by paying hotel guests only! Moreover, adding more chairs/loungers would be an even better solution.
 
At the beach
One day a group of French speaking tourists from Quebec were conducting a very animated and loud conversation which lasted for a long time; I was sure they could be heard by half of the sunbathers on the beach! During our stay a wedding between a Canadian gentleman from Quebec and a Cuban girl took place at the hotel. It was fun to watch although they took over the beach bar and entertainment stage for most of the afternoon/evening.

We always stayed on the beach directly in front of our hotel and could see our loungers from the balcony. The beach was quite long and it was possible to walk along it towards the east for several kilometers. Catherine went for such strolls every morning; she ran into Cubans asking her for clothes and she eventually did give them some. She promised one less aggressive older man she would come through when she was leaving. He never bothered her during her walks as did some of the women who would have you strip down on the beach.
There was a bar in the east section of the beach, but it did not belong to the hotel and you had to pay for whatever it was selling—it was apparently catering to the tourists and Cubans coming from Trinidad to the beach for the day.

OUR ROOM #8312

The room was located in the ‘superior section’ and a three minute walk from the main hotel lobby was required—it led near the (empty) pool and the entertainment area as well as necessitated climbing the stairs to the third floor (no elevators in that section). It was a rather small room, but it was okay. It had a balcony, facing the ocean and the beach, from which we could admire sunsets. A couple of loungers/chairs on the balcony would have been nice, though! The TV had plenty of channels, including CNN and Canada’s CTV, albeit from Montreal (in English). The air conditioner worked, yet we tried to sleep with the balcony door open and drawn curtains so that mosquitos could not get in (as a matter of fact, I do not remember being bitten by any mosquitos or sand flies). The bathroom was small, had a bathtub, we always had hot (and cold) water. There were two small double (or twin) beds. The small fridge kept our beverages cold and the safe was free. We got two magnetic cards; both opened the door and one of them also opened the safe.

The maid did a great job cleaning the room every day and we left her tips mainly in the form of clothes—we brought a bunch of brand new shirts, many with attached price tags (from $12.99 to $69.99) and we used them not only as tips, but also as payment for services—Cubans loved them! Since the entertainment area was close by, we could clearly hear the music from our room. Incidentally, we never went to any performance, though we did spend part of an evening watching a newlywed (Canadian/Cuban) party use the stage for dancing before the entertainment started.
 
Spanish coffee
Not long before our trip, I had picked up a book on World War II. Even though I had read hundreds of books about this war, almost all of them had been written by Allied soldiers. This one—“The Forgotten Soldier”—was written by a young German soldier, Guy Sajer, who after joining the German army at the age of 16 in the summer of 1942, fought on the Eastern Front. After initial successes of the German army in the Soviet Union, he soon faced cold, hunger, diseases, Soviet artillery and sadistic German officers. This was the most realistic, brutally honest and shocking war book I had ever read. And what was even more remarkable, the author, born in 1927, was still alive as of August, 2016! So, I was often totally engrossed in reading this enthralling book while sitting on the balcony or on the beach.

RESTAURANTS

The main dining hall/restaurant (Bahia de Casilda) was adjacent to the lobby. We always skipped lunch, only had late breakfasts and twice or thrice dinner there. For breakfast we had some fruits, salads and fried eggs with bacon or cooked-to-order omelets as well as very good yogurt (not available every day). Dinners offered the regular fare, there were three cooking stations and I was always able to find something I liked. The red wine was quite passable. Most of the time we sat near the windows, at the end of the dining hall. The open windows were also used by several birds to fly in and out. Overall, I had no problem with any of the food that was served—although the selection was not as plentiful and tasty as that in other hotels in Cuba we had recently stayed at and I can certainly understand tourists who were expressing their disappointment with the food. Then again, I never come to Cuba to expect some amazing food anyway. Catherine found the dining room rather depressing. The long ceiling to floor windows were always shut & shuttered with drapes. Only the 3 windows at the end by the serving station were open.
 

At the lower ground floor there were two a’ la carte restaurants—Italian and Seafood (Restaurante el Pescador). Catherine loved that it was outdoors, but did rain our first evening there and we had to switch tables. We also wanted to try having a meal at the Italian Restaurant, but were informed that it served only pasta, so we skipped it, dinning twice in the Seafood Restaurant. It had a fountain and the second time we managed to sit next to it. I ordered sea food salad, Surf & Turf (grilled shrimps with special gravy& saddle of pork with Barbacoa sauce), the Commodore (fish filet and grilled shrimps), Arroz Casildeno (rice with fish, pork, chicken, vegetables & white wine) and cheese cake. Both of us found the food quite good, some dishes were excellent.

Curiously, the same evening a couple were also having a’ la carte dinner. We spoke to them several days later and they said that the food was awful and they quickly left the restaurant. No wonder that tourists reading TripAdvisor’s reviews are often extremely confused and do not know whom to trust!
I still remember this humorous, yet very clever Jewish tale: in a small town in pre-war Poland, two yeshiva students had been arguing over the correct interpretation of some Torah verses. Unable to settle the issue, they went to see the Rabbi to get the right answer. The first student put forth his arguments and the Rabbi said, “You are right”. Then the second student presented his reasoning to the Rabbi, who also said, “You are right”. One of the onlookers, who heard the whole conversation, asked the Rabbi, “Each of the students presented two completely contradictory arguments. How can they could be both right?” After pondering for a while, the Rabbi said to him, “And you are right, too.”
 

It was also possible to have one meal at the adjacent Hotel Brisas (in its top restaurant), but since only six Ancon guests were allowed to eat there every evening, we never did get to go. It took us (or rather Catherine) some time and a lot of patience before we managed to get a voucher for another restaurant at the Brisas under a giant outdoor palapa (it featured a stuffed, life size ox inside). We actually walked there directly from our hotel across the beach path; we had a very casual, romantic and tasty meal and enjoyed it very much. By the way, the Brisas was a lot nicer than the Ancon, with Spanish style architecture.

HOP-ON-HOP-OFF BUS TO TRINIDAD

One of the main reasons we went to the Ancon was its proximity to the town of Trinidad, one of the most beautiful towns in Cuba. Located 10 km from the Hotel Ancon, it was a very short ride from the hotel by bus or taxi—well, some tourists brought bikes and they rode to town. However, there was also a hop-on-hop-off bus, departing from the Hotel Ancon to Trinidad at 10:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. and from Trinidad to the Ancon at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. It cost 2 CUC both ways (keep the ticket if you are planning coming back).
 

The first time we decided to take the last bus going to Trinidad. It departed from the front of the hotel just before 6:00 p.m. and besides us, there were only two other tourists and a hotel employee aboard. We were quite surprised that the bus was almost empty, but since it was the last run to town, we figured out that there were not too many tourists wanting to go to town this late and then get a taxi back to the hotel. We were so mistaken, as nothing could be farther from the truth!
 
The Polish Fiat 126p
After two minutes the bus pulled into a nearby parking lot near the beach (close to our section of the hotel) and we gasped in surprise, as a seemingly endless throng of backpackers and beachcombers streamed onto the bus. We were pretty sure that two-thirds of them would be left behind, but again, we were wrong! The apparently veteran driver took charge, telling people on the bus to put their packs onto the storage shelves and squeeze to the back of the bus. All in all, upon arrival in Trinidad we counted 69 people plus the driver—and it was a rather small bus! I felt as though I was riding a bus in the communist Poland of the 1970s and early 1980s, where such situations were quite typical, but Catherine found it quite disagreeable (even though it was a very short ride, her front-row view was ruined) and said that she could not imagine living in a communist country (or in India, I guess, where passengers routinely travel on the roof of whatever mode of transportation they are using). Ordinarily, the bus should have stopped at the other hotels (Brisas and Costa Sur), but obviously, this time it did not—or the driver would have had to place extra tourist on the roof!
 
Plaza Mayor
We took the bus two more times to Trinidad and on one occasion back to the hotel. Normally it was on time and it stopped very close to Plaza Carillo (where the Iberostar Gran Hotel Trinidad was located), on Calle San Procopio (a.k.a. Lino Perez), close to Calle Gutiérrez (a.k.a. Antonio Maceo), almost in front of La Casa Manuela. Since twice we stayed in Trinidad until after 10:00 p.m., we took cabs back to the hotel—in both instances, antique American cars from the 1950s and the price was 10-12 CUC—yet both times we bartered by giving the drivers new t-shirts, they were more than happy to accept them in lieu of pecuniary payment! One evening we asked the cabdriver to pick up a hitchhiker on the way back to our hotel—lo and behold, he was a ‘Brit’, staying at the Costasur and the cab driver dropped him off first as it was on the way—charging him for the ride!

TRIPS TO TRINIDAD:

This gorgeous town, founded in 1514, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the best preserved cities in Cuba—when the sugar trade, the main industry in the region, collapsed, the city became ‘forgotten’ and thus managed to retain its unique architecture.

We visited the town of Trinidad three times during our trip and stayed there till late evening. Since at that time Trinidad was celebrating a Culture Week (“Semana de la Cultura Trinitaria”), it was teeming with tourists of various nationalities—in fact, on several occasions I noticed that there were MORE tourists than Cubans! Also, I had never before seen so many casas particulares—on some streets literally every third house had the distinctive ‘casa particular’ sign and we were told that sometimes all of them were occupied and tourists ended up sleeping in parks. Furthermore, we saw plenty of amazing private restaurants and very often their staff were standing at the door, inviting tourists in.
Acabamos de comer en el hotel”, we invariably said (meaning that we’ve just eaten in the hotel) and this expression always worked.
 

We would have loved to have a meal or two in one of them, but in general we were not hungry. However, one late evening we were wandering along a narrow and crowded street, with plenty of stalls serving food and we did end up having a very tasty dinner. We enjoyed walking all over town and even though we often walked in dark, potholed and cobblestoned streets, at all times we felt very safe and Cubans were always willing to give us directions. I presented some gifts to a relatively young man, who had lost both arms in an accident.
 
Church of the Holy Trinity (Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad) at Plaza Mayor.
On Saturday we attended the evening mass at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad) at Plaza Mayor. This church dates from 1892 and was built on the site of a previous church, destroyed by a cyclone in the 19th century. Inside the church there are plenty of various statues, but the most famous was a wooden statute of Christ, “The Lord of the True Cross (El Señor de la Vera Cruz). When in the 17th century the statue was being shipped to a church in Veracruz, Mexico, the ship carrying it was pushed back to Trinidad three times by bad weather; only after abandoning some of its cargo (including the statue) was it able to continue its journey. Perceived as divine intervention, the local population decided to house the statue of Christ in the church. The church also has an impressive altar dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy (Nuestra Senora de la Piedad).
 
Wooden statute of Christ, “The Lord of the True Cross
(El Señor de la Vera Cruz)
The Plaza Mayor is the center of the town and judging by the impressive 18th and 19th century buildings surrounding the plaza, it is apparent that trade in sugar from the nearby Valle de los Ingenios and the slave trade greatly enriched the city! We often walked from the Plaza Mayor to Plaza Carillo, admiring this city. Cobblestoned streets and houses with red terracotta-tiled roofs, large main door (with smaller entrance door cut into it) are the most noticed characteristics of Trinidad. One evening we sat on one of the benches in the Plaza Mayor and had a bottle of champagne we had previously purchased in a store. Incidentally, the store was also selling 1 liter bottles of 40% vodka for just 2CUC, or $2.00 US, or less than $3.00 Canadian.

We also enjoyed a bottle of store-bought prosecco at Plaza Carillo until the loud non-Cuban music drove us away. As in Canada, there was the omnipresent can/bottle collector picking up after the littering masses.

Another interesting building near the church is the House of the Conspirators (La Casa de los Consipiradores), with its characteristic wooden balcony on one corner, overlooking the square. It was a former meeting place of the Cuban nationalist secret society “La Rosa de Cuba”, the Rose of Cuba.
 
The House of the Conspirators (La Casa de los Consipiradores)
Indisputably, one of the most distinctive buildings in Trinidad is the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis (Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco). Currently it houses the Museum of the Struggle against Bandits (Museo de la Lucha contra Banditos)—i.e., the counter-revolution forces that took refuge in the nearby Escambray Mountains after the Cuban Revolution and continued fighting against Fidel Castro’s government. Out of curiosity, I went to the museum, which displayed photographs, documents, letters, weapons, a piece of the American U-2 spy plane shot and similar artifacts. Since everything was only in Spanish, it was impossible for me to understand much.
 

At this point I would like to make a digression. Upon seeing the museum’s name, I immediately thought of Poland’s anti-communist underground resistance movements formed after the Second World War, which were fighting against the Stalinist government of Poland well into the 1950s. Whereas I do not remember any museum dedicated to such struggle, there were plenty of monuments commemorating “the armed struggle to consolidate the people’s power”—meaning the struggle of the new Polish communist militia, secret police or military forces against ‘bandits’ (i.e., anticommunist fighters). The latter were invariably portrayed as traitors, collaborators, spies, monsters and murderers, whose names were obliterated from the history. Ironically, following the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989, those ‘bandits’ were officially rehabilitated, awarded high military awards (in many cases, posthumously), had monuments dedicated to their memory erected and were considered heroes—unlike those who had persecuted them. Well, history likes to repeat itself…


Anyway… the Church and Monastery of Saint Francis, built in 1813, eventually fell into disrepair and were demolished in 1920—only the bell tower was left standing. The bell tower is depicted on the 25 centavo convertible peso coin—as well as it appears on most photos of Trinidad. The tower was accessible to tourists and I managed to reach its top via very narrow and steep stairs, to a small chamber where the bells were. It offered a breathtaking view of the city—I could even see Playa Ancon and our Hotel!
 
Plazuela del Jigüe (named after the jigüe (acacia tree), under which the fist Mass in Trinidad was celebrated in 1514 by Bartolomé de las Casas.
Not far from the church of Saint Francis was a small square, Plazuela del Jigüe (named after the jigüe (acacia tree), under which the fist Mass in Trinidad was celebrated in 1514 by Bartolomé de las Casas. Incidentally, this 16th century Spanish Dominican friar & bishop (1484-1566) spent 50 years of his life actively fighting slavery and the violent colonial abuse of indigenous peoples.

In a nutshell, Trinidad is a stunning town, one of the most beautiful in Cuba!
 

TRIP TO LA BOCA

We also spent several hours in the village of La Boca—the hop-on-hop-off bus stopped there (unless it was full—but this time we were able to take it both ways as we left in the morning and returned mid-afternoon).
 

We had visited the village of La Boca 6 years ago, in January, 2010. At that time it had had just a few casas particulares and few restaurants; most of the houses had been run down & in very bad conditions. I remember that after sunset we had not been able to find any restaurant or taxi and eventually asked a local resident for a ride to the hotel. I had also taken wonderful photographs of very young four girls standing in a window—and I hoped to give the photos to them now.
 
Photo taken in January, 2010
Our first impression of La Boca—plenty of positive changes! We spotted a lot of new casas particulares and restaurants; most of houses had improved a great deal, there were numerous ‘construction sites’ all over the place. When we spoke to one Cuban, he said that because now Cubans could legally own, buy and sell their houses, they had finally an incentive to take good care of and invest in their homes. Yeah, capitalism, even in such a limited form, was evidently working there! We also spoke to a restaurant & casa particular owner—his restaurant, called “La Barca” (The Boat), in the shape of a boat, was under construction. He told us that it was a difficult, expensive and time consuming process. We finally found the house where I had taken the photographs of the four girls in 2010; unfortunately, all of them were in school, so I left the photos with the father of one of them.
 
Private business
Since nothing lasts forever, our vacation came to an end, too. The checkout time was at 1:00 p.m., so we had packed up everything in advance and went to the beach in the morning to enjoy the last day of our vacation. We came back to our room at about 12:15 p.m. and when I tried to open the safe (where our passports, money and cameras were), neither magnetic card worked. I called the reception to report this issue and was told to come with the card so that it could be reprogrammed. Two minutes later Catherine called the reception and asked the receptionist to send somebody over to our room as it was difficult for us to come—she wanted to shower—besides, it was not our fault, after all. The receptionist insisted on her coming to the reception—and simply hung up on her, thus forcing Catherine to take a walk to the lobby and join the lineup of people checking out! It was still about 20 minutes to 1:00 p.m.—yet we also discovered that now both cards ceased to open our door as well.
 
Street vendor
Well, we had the perfect right to use our room (including the safe) until the checkout time and it was quite disappointing and nerve wracking that the cards stopped working BEFORE that time—if anything, they should have had a ‘built-in’ grace period of at least 30 minutes instead of making our last hours unpleasant and testing. Incidentally, we had experienced a similar glitch several years ago in the Club Amigo in Guardalavaca. In any case, after showering we were ready to leave the room (it was possible to pay about 10 CUC per hour to stay longer), but decided to remain for as long as possible. Fortunately, nobody came to kick us out and we were able to enjoy the room for over two hours.
 
Garlic, garlic!
The previous day we had met two Cuban women in front of the hotel by the parking lot; one was apparently suffering from some mental health problems. She had kept pestering us for gifts—we did not have any on us, but told her we would bring something tomorrow. It was a good idea—when we were packing, there were plenty of things we did not want to bring back to Canada and we put them in a shopping bag. Indeed, as promised, she was waiting for us in front of the hotel! Soon we boarded the bus and headed to the airport.

We said good bye to our bar cats and the French-Canadian regular visitor who watched over them and exchanged addresses with our American gentleman, then boarded the big Yutong bus, filled with Polish/Canadian tourists. We made one bathroom stop on the way where the villagers and 2 scrawny dogs stood and tried to engage us in buying fruit—but did not beg.

AIRPORT IN CIENFUEGOS

The Cienfuegos airport was small, but it had a duty-free store carrying rums, vodkas, cigarettes, cigars and other articles, so I did all my final shopping there, as I always did in Cuba. There was also a bar serving beer and other drinks. Two adjacent glass doors led to the tarmac—“Gate 1” and “Gate 2”. Because our boarding pass did not specify the gate number, I said kiddingly, “It would be terrible if we took the wrong gate!” What a difference in comparison with the Toronto Airport, which probably had a hundred of gates and 2 Terminals. Cuba will need to expand its infrastructure to accommodate the anticipated Yankee invasion.

On the plane we sat next to a Cuban man who was going to stay in Toronto for several months. I asked him how he got his Cuban passport and Canadian visa. He smiled and showed me his passport—actually, it was Spanish!
 
Catherine is buying HUGE avocados. She also HUGELY overpaid for them
Since 2008 Spain has issued over 100,000 Spanish passports to Cubans under a law that allowed descendants (children and grandchildren) of those exiled during the Spanish civil war to reclaim Spanish citizenship. An estimated 1 million Spaniards had emigrated to Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century, including the father of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Thus, there were suddenly plenty of Cubans who were able to not only travel visa-free to the US, Canada, Europe and Latin America, but could also officially work in many European countries and legally emigrate to Spain! As a matter of fact, I knew about this Spanish law—when we had visited Havana for the first time in January, 2009, I had seen hundreds of people lining up in front of the Spanish embassy. Yes, it was the Cubans waiting to apply to reclaim their Spanish citizenship! I am curious if the Castro brothers also qualify to reclaim Spanish citizenship—maybe they have already taken advantage of this new rule and secretly obtained Spanish passports, just in case?
 
Trinidad's picturesque cobblestone streets
Most of the times planes coming to Toronto from the south do not proceed directly to the Pearson Airport, but make a wide 180 degree turn over Toronto and then approach the airport from the north-east. Such turns usually takes place… over Catherine’s house—whenever we sit in her backyard, we see (and hear!) tens of such circling planes. This time our plane also made the same maneuver and through the plane’s window I could see not only Catherine’s neighborhood, but also her house!

We had found out from a Canadian tourist that it was LEGAL to bring exotic fruits to Canada (as long as they were not cultivated in Canada), so we brought 5 HUGE avocados (their pits were almost the size of the avocados sold in stores in Canada!), meticulously declaring them on the Canadian customs declaration form. Indeed, the customs officer asked Catherine a perfunctory question about them and let her go through without any problems.

CONCLUSION

Since we go to Cuba with a very open mind, overall we enjoyed our stay. Although the hotel’s crude, concrete architecture was not too appealing, we had been aware beforehand what kind of establishment we would be going to—and that was why we booked a room at the Superior Ocean View Section, which was a very good choice. Despite our generous tipping the hotel staff were NOT as nice, friendly and attentive as those in the other hotels we had recently visited [namely Colonial Hotel (Cayo Coco), Hotel Club Amigo Caracol (Santa Lucia) or Club Amigo Atlantico (Guardalavaca)], but they were still adequate. The food was OK, the room was clean (with plenty of hot water!) and we could count on catching the bus to Trinidad—visiting this charming town was the highlight of this trip and the main reason staying in this particular hotel.
 
Catherine with our taxi driver and his antique car
Would I go to this hotel again? If the price were right, maybe I would consider staying there and treating it as a main base to explore Trinidad and other attractions in the area. However, if I were planning on spending more time on the beach and around the hotel, I would rather pay more and pick the adjoining Brisas as I liked its Spanish, colonial-inspired design. Nevertheless, I had, as always, a great time in Cuba and I am looking forward to another trip in November or December!


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