Food. Life. Travel

Varadero, Cuba: Living the All-Inclusive Experience

The picturesque beach at our hotel. Pure bliss!

I anxiously looked at the screen and continued to refresh the page. The weather said it was going to be primarily cloudy with bouts of rain and the occasional thunderstorm. This was certainly not the Cuban vacation I had envisioned. I scrolled through the numerous photos of blue skies, white beaches, and turquoise waters, envying everyone enjoying the tropical temperatures of Varadero. It seemed like the vacation would be destined for failure if the weather gave me anything but sunshine. However, it seemed as if Mother Nature was on my side. Alas, we lucked out! Despite what the weather forecast predicted, the temperatures in Varadero remained steady and pleasant throughout our time there, with occasional rain in the evening. I would soon make my place amongst the others who geotagged Varadero on Instagram, and the millennial in me was happy.

As our plane touched the ground and we disembarked the plane, my face was hit with a warm and humid breeze. Instantly everything felt better and as the sun continued to beat down on my shoulders, warming me up from the air-conditioned 6-hour plane ride. I couldn’t wait to get our Varadero vacation started, and since the sun was holding up, I assumed nothing could go wrong. Naturally, I was mistaken.

Not after 20 minutes from disembarking the aircraft, I realized I had left my phone on the plane. Either that or my phone was, unfortunately, conveniently lifted from my carry on bag as it went through security. Despite me recognizing that my phone was missing from early on, the Sunwing Representative in Cuba assured me that by now my phone was most likely stolen, the plane had already left and there was nothing he could do about it. So much for starting off the vacation right. Even though my phone was on its last legs, I felt betrayed and upset by the whole ordeal. I tried to fight back tears as I walked towards the bus that would take us to our resort. The loss of my phone but a damper on things and my mood on our way to the resort was sullen. As I watched the Cuban countryside pass by, I took the loss of my phone as a bad omen and it didn’t help that the group behind me were loud, obnoxious, day drunk but harmless fellow Canadians that were making me reconsider if I wanted to spend the next 7 days with them. Luckily they weren’t at my resort.

Alas, the bus pulled up to our hotel. Melia Las Antillas a purported 4.5 out of 5 stars (or 3.85 out of 5 via customer reviews) on Sunwing, 4 out of 5 stars on Trip Advisor and according to the plaque on their wall 4.65 stars out of 6. So not exactly 4 stars but not exactly 5 stars either. Despite my somber mood from earlier, I instantly perked up once we entered the lobby. Although not as grand as other lobbies out there in the world of extraordinary hotel lobbies, Melia Las Antillas has an open foyer with plenty of seating space, natural sunlight, a lobby bar and patio, as well as consistent nightly entertainment. The employee at the front desk (shout out to Nadielys) greeted us warmly and set us up with white wristbands indicating our status on the resort – that of VIP with access to concierge service. Pretty fancy eh? Concierge service entitled us access to an entertainment room on the 5th floor with snacks and a fully stocked bar. It  also entitled reception to avoid their duty to answer our questions since we had a “white wristband.” All jokes aside, concierge service had a few perks, the best was access to the entertainment room.

When we booked our room, we were guaranteed an ocean facing view, but, as we soon came to learn during our all-inclusive experience, not everything is what it seems. We did get quite a view that consisted of the courtyard space of the hotel, the crisscrossing water features (that had nurse sharks, but also stunk of sewage during the day), palm trees, the bright blue colour of the pool, and finally as we looked down below we had front row seats to the outdoor patio of the lobby bar. The lobby bar patio at night transformed into the grazing field of older, drunk white folks relieving their glory days, insisting on screaming “Opa!” everytime they took a shot, and singing the full chorus of Happy Birthday for every individual whose birthday it was, well into the 3:30 am. A call to reception resolved nothing (my mistake, I should have called the closed offices of the concierge) and we were lucky that on some nights our drunken comrade’s performances were canceled due to the rain. I had never been happier for rain in my life as I did during those 3 nights of bliss.

Our room’s balcony was directly adjacent to the room of my brother and sister as well as our Russian neighbor, who, on the first day greeted me with a “Don’t be shy here!” as he stood on his balcony in his underwear. So not quite ocean view, and not exactly a bad view, but not exactly a view I wanted (with regards to the Russian man in his underwear) to be ingrained in my eyes for eternity. However, being the polite, reserved and incredibly understanding Canadians that we are, we never once complained about not having an ocean view. It’s simply not Canadian to expect things that you paid for and then realize that you aren’t exactly going to get it. So just shut up, sit tight, and enjoy the drunken cries of the other happy go lucky resort dwellers.

RESORT LIFE POLITICS

At first, I wanted to write a regular post about my Varadero trip that cut out all the bad parts and showed all the good ones. Then I realized that is not who I am, and it would be a travesty to my readers, and to myself if I was anything but honest. Like with many of my travels, a lot of what I experience are adventures and stories that make for great anecdotes at parties. Our trip to Varadero was no different. I enjoyed having the luxury and chance to escape work for 7 days and indulge beachside lounging. I am very thankful I got to enjoy the sun and the sand. But at the same time, our resort experience was so different from what I expected that it it would be a shame not to write about my perspective on the whole thing. I have nothing against all-inclusives, they are incredibly fun, but when you are sober for the entirety of the trip you get to see all-inclusives in a whole different light. I’ve come to realize that the resorts are very interesting ecosystems with a lot of politics. If you’re staying at an adults-only resort, you’ll witness underage drinking (16 is the new 18) and if you’re really lucky you’ll overhear some of the more older yet friskier patrons trying to organize a little menage a trois meets wife swap. It’s very entertaining.

I like to liken the resort experience to a zoo. We are different animals that are held captive together for a week in habitable conditions with all our basic needs being met. Shelter, food, and beer. Water, on the other hand, is like oil, and the concierge staff rations it out frugally. For the most part, the docile-but-drunk resort goers live together peacefully without a problem, though at times antlers collide and tensions rise. I noticed two situations that almost always caused conflict amongst the resort dwellers. What is once a happy, relaxed and amicable vibe soon turns hostile as the animals (i.e. the resort dwellers) feel their space is being threatened and their needs are not being met. I recall two situations that are the epitome of what happens when strangers spend too much time together in one space. From an anthropological perspective, it was very fascinating.

INDEED AT 53, IT IS OKAY TO HAVE A TANTRUM

The very first situation involves food. Although all-inclusive’s provide all main meals and drinks, food on resorts in Cuba leaves much to be desired. It is a well-known fact that you go to Cuba for the beaches and beer not for the food. And it isn’t because Cuban food isn’t tasty. It is. Rather the interpretation of inter-continental food by Cuban cooks on the resorts isn’t exactly tasty. At Melia Las Antillas, the most coveted meal, after beer, was the shrimp. Every single tourist (including myself) flocked to the shrimp because while being tasty, it was also the only palatable item on the menu (although twice we got the God-send that is deep fried hashbrowns). However, the most voracious pursuers of the shrimp were the Russians and Germans. Apparently, they don’t get shrimp in their own countries judging by how many trips they made back to the buffet to get third helpings.

Being such a hot commodity, naturally, the shrimp did not last the entirety of the buffet service. And if the resort were to continually supply an endless amount of shrimp for the Russian and German tourists – 1) the resort would start charging more for their packages (shrimp isn’t cheap) and 2) the Germans and Russians would die from elevated levels of mercury in their blood. Nevertheless, this logic did not reason with this one particular German man standing in front of me – no siree. He was a tall heavy set man (i.e. he didn’t need more shrimp) with a gruff red face and a handlebar mustache. He approached the shrimp grill station jolly enough and pointed to the (empty) plate of shrimp “I want.” The cook responded with the worst words possible “We are all out.”

The blood began to drain from the German man’s face. He then began to huff, and puff and threaten to blow the whole house down. Just kidding. But he did indeed throw a tantrum. At 53.  This man decided his best bet was to act pouty, turn his face to the side, roll his eyes, exclaim in a snippy and brusque manner “I want the shrimp” and then ignore the cook’s attempt to placate him with some other sort of seafood. He just wasn’t a tilapia sort of man. He wanted the shrimp goddamnit!

In fact, I almost feared for this man’s life. I thought if he got any angrier, surely his heart would stop from all the stress this shrimp debacle was causing him. However, a knight in shining armor came to the rescue and offered to split some of his shrimp with the German man. And just like that, his entire demeanor changed. He regained blood to his face, his wheezing subsided, I am sure he even wiped away a tear or two. Without even feigning objection (you know the traditional Canadian way of saying “Oh no! I couldn’t possibly. I mean, only if you insist. Are you sure? Well golly, thank you!”), he said, “Yes that works.”

Yes. That. Works.

So if my experience on this resort has taught me anything, it is that shrimp is the catnip for Germans and Russians, and at 53 it is acceptable to throw a tantrum. That’s the only way you’re sure to get what you want.

RESORT TOURISTS ARE TERRITORIAL BEINGS

DO NOT. I repeat. DO NOT attempt to take an empty beach chair in the territory of drunk and rowdy resort-goers. These animals are very territorial and possessive. Even if said beach chair was relinquished by someone else and it is fair game to take that beach chair, I would caution against this. Should you decided to throw caution to the wind and ignore my advice, you risk losing a few limbs and you will certainly be shunned by the popular more powerful drunk predators of the pool bar. One lady (who at one point was chummy-ing it up with this group) got into a yelling match as she went to grab the empty beach chair. The other group insisted it was their right to have it, and in this case, she was on the lower end of the social hiertarchy (much like some females in monkey troops) and had to give up the chair.

In fact, one innocent couple from Newfoundland (bless their innocent Newfie souls), almost started a Second Cold War when they naively pulled up their beach chairs on the unused half of the thatched beach umbrella on the beach. While it is assumed (purely through common sense and consideration for others) that if you only use one half of the beach umbrella, another person can take up residence on the other half, the Russians occupying said other half, did not like this. No siree. Not one bit. They arrived in all their tanned beef jerky glory (or shriveled leather, whichever simile you prefer) and gruffly asked me (while pointing to the chairs) “This yours?”

When I said no, the man proceeded to huff and puff and he almost blew the beach umbrella down. He was so angry! He paced restlessly, scoured the beaches to see if he could find the couple who dared take up residence next to him (our innocent Newfie couple) while his girlfriend sat there helplessly, occasionally throwing me a pained “What can I do? Russian boys will be Russian boys right?” smile towards me. Eventually, the 28-degree sweltering heat got to the best of him and he lay back on his chair to “cool off” and continue roasting his body. He would periodically get up and restlessly pace back and forth hoping to catch these damned fools, but there was no sight of the couple (they were innocently paddle boating somewhere in the sea). Eventually, an uninhabited umbrella opened up elsewhere and the Russians moved away. Crisis averted. But I realized just how territorial people could be when it came to beach chairs. They are hot commodities!

Thus this is the story of how a blissfully unaware couple for Newfoundland almost started a Second Cold War with the Russians (over occupied beach umbrella territory), I (the Arab-Muslim girl), was stuck in the middle of it all, all while being enclosed in the ex-USSR outpost of Cuba. That would have been quite the diplomatic event for Prime Minister Trudeau eh?

COME ONE, COME ALL! THE ALL-INCLUSIVE IS AT YOUR BECK AND CALL

Overall, I have nothing against all-inclusives. I think that they are an ingenious idea that really allow many people to experience the sights and sounds of other countries for a reasonable price. They are a great and affordable alternative to other methods of travel, and above all these resorts are incredibly convenient. Where else are you going to find flights, shelter, 3-meals plus snacks, an endless supply of holy water (booze), entertainment and white sand beaches for $2000 or less?

The downside to resort life (and I speak only for my experiences in Cuba), is the fact that while everything is being provided, the days become slightly redundant. The food, of course, isn’t very appetizing (and it is even harder when you are Muslim or if you have other dietary restrictions), you are confined to the four walls of your resort (for the most part), and perhaps the biggest complaint I have, everything off the resort is super expensive.

All-inclusives provide all the perks of traveling in one comfy price but you’re limited to just the resort. Anything off the resort, and particularly in Cuba, is incredibly expensive. This time around in Varadero, a lot of what we paid for didn’t seem worth the money, and we were even ripped off in Havana when the owners of the casa particular wanted to charge us a higher price.

The excursions provided by the resort offer the convenience and ease of doing the “touristy” things you want to do but the tours are a bit expensive (especially if you’ve already paid $1300 plus for the week). Often times you are grouped together with other tourists from other resorts so the excursion becomes less intimate and more generic (merely just showing you the sights and then hustling you off to the next place).

Of course, these things are to be expected when you decide to “go off course” and add different experiences. The prices add up. But for Varadero, in particular, I found everything to be so pricey with no value for what you were paying for. On top of that you were constantly expected to tip, and although I have no problem with tipping it starts to add up. At times people were willing to negotiate with you, but not by much and not very often.

I, unfortunately, did not get a chance to explore the town of Varadero itself, although I was told the town is very nice and safe.  While on our ride back to the airport, I did see that Varadero had plenty of restaurants, little souvenir stores, and small bodegas. Should you get the chance, I think spending a few hours browsing the town would be a nice little retreat away from the resort, especially if your hotel is close to the town.  Instead, we took a day trip to Havana and our taxi driver drove us through his hometown of Mantazanas (about 40 minutes away from Varadero). While on the resort itself, they offered some activities for free including access to canoes, paddleboats and catamaran rides, and for 20 CUC per person, you had the option to snorkel.

Ultimately, my experience in Varadero wasn’t what I expected and it was certainly different from my time in Cayo Coco. In three years many things had changed, but I also feel that Varadero itself is different from Cayo Coco, to begin with. The town is exclusively a resort town (much like the Cayos), but more expensive, and I liken it as being the Cancun or Vegas of Cuba. People from all walks of life flock to this town in the North to experience a slice of paradise, drink consistently, eat (plates) of shrimp and relax before going back to the tension of the “real world.”

I romanticised Cuba and entered the country with rose-coloured glasses assuming that my 7 days would be exactly like a movie. I did not anticipate some of the problems (or people) we encountered, and I certainly didn’t expect the experience to be as expensive as it turned out to be. Perhaps the events leading up the vacation were truly an omen and maybe we should have gone another time. However, in the end, despite my grand dreams, I did go to Cuba with one (achievable) intention. To lay on the beach, swim in the sea, indulge in ice cream and more importantly get tan enough to last me till next winter in Calgary! And I managed to do all of that.

USEFUL LINKS

Here are some links to other posts I have written about Cuba (Cayo Coco). I will be updating the page to include my post for “Things to Do in Varadero” as well as “Things to Do in Havana.” I have also included a link to the travel agent I used to book the trip and the link to the hotel we stayed in. Have you guys been to Cuba before? What has your experiences been like in all-inclusive resorts?

Things to do in Cayo Coco

Bienvenido a Cayo Coco

Things to do in Varadero

Things to do in Havana

Melia Las Antillas

Heather Chambers – Absolute Travel (she has a Facebook as well!)

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