Saturday, 12 March 2016

Our Stay in Cuba

This year, we stayed four weeks at an all-inclusive resort Club Amigo Marea del Portillo in Cuba. We picked this resort because it is located at the west end of the South Coast Road, our favourite route from our bike tour last year. You can read about that tour here if you missed it.

This resort is filled with guests arriving on Wednesdays at Manzanillo airport on Sunwing flights from both Montreal and Toronto. 


It was a long day of travel for us from London. We left home at 9:30 a.m. driving to Skypark parking in Toronto where we took a shuttle to the airport arriving before noon for our 3 p.m. flight. The check-in line was long, but moved fairly quickly once the baggage counters opened.

There was one issue with our bike boxes. Sunwing insisted we open both boxes to prove they held bikes. This had to be done in the middle of the aisle at baggage check-in. It was inconvenient and time-consuming as our fully-loaded boxes are difficult to close and secure properly.

At the end of this ordeal, we were asked to proceed to the over-size baggage counter with instructions to pay the $30 fee plus an additional $80 for each bike as the boxes were over the 44-lb weight limit. Since no further paperwork was provided, the ladies at the over-size baggage counter requested only $30 each as listed on our itinerary - no problem.
Our 3 p.m. flight left on time, landing in Cuba at 7 p.m. Once we got through the long slow line through Customs, our luggage was waiting. My husband joined another line to exchange Canadian $600 into CUC$400 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC$). I piled our luggage on a cart, got our room assignment envelope from the Sunwing Tour Guide and waited for my husband. Once he returned, we loaded our luggage on a bus with space for two bike bags plus two suitcases and boarded. 
It was a long, slow two-hour drive over rough roads from the airport to our resort. Thankfully, I slept most of the way. When we arrived, we collected our luggage and joined the masses in the lobby. 

It was crowded and chaotic. I guarded our luggage while my husband stood in line for our room key. Men kept trying to grab our bags to deliver them to our room. I declined their help because we didn't have small bills for tips. In the end, we dragged everything around searching for our room. It didn't take long to find it, haul our bags up the stairs and change into shorts before heading back to the pool bar for snacks and drinks. We were hungry, thirsty and tired after our long day of travel.


The next day, we got up early at 7 a.m. It was a short walk from our cabana to the main dining room off the lobby. After breakfast, we picked up cappuccinos at the pool bar for my husband who then spent a couple hours assembling our bikes on the veranda outside our room. I sat in the shade admiring the view. 
Once the bikes were assembled and stored safely in our room, we headed to an orientation meeting where the Sunwing Tour Representative described what Excursions were available for purchase and, more importantly, where to get our big blue beach towels. 

The beach towels are distributed by room maids. Everybody must sign for their towels and pay CUC$25 for any towels lost. This towel distribution method is very efficient. We exchanged our towels only twice in four weeks. Once when we moved to a new room with a new maid then again after another week and half. In the past, we visited resorts where towels were distributed daily. That method created more laundry and required one person on duty to sign out towels all day long.

After our meeting we found our maid, signed out our towels and headed to the beach to explore. 

We were happy to see the beach was way better than we remembered. Six years ago we stayed one night at the Farallon (hotel on the hill). The beach at that end of the bay is not as nice with 'muddy' sand and water filled with weeds and sea urchins. 

The Farallon has other attractions beyond the beach. It is newer with nicer rooms and amazing views. The pool has a swim-up bar although not everybody thinks this is a good thing. The pool grill serves more food choices. The dining room is bigger and fancier with cleaner chair pads. Fortunately, guests can eat, drink and hang out at either the Farallon or the Marea. Your choice of accommodation depends on preferences and availability. 


We chose the Marea because we wanted to stay in a cabana close to the beach. Not everybody likes cabanas. We loved them. Even so, we moved rooms each week until we were totally satisfied.

Our first room was on the second floor in the back row of cabanas. It was large with three beds, but no back balcony. We could almost see the ocean from our veranda out front. Since we really wanted Ocean View, we requested to move the following Wednesday.
Our next room was in an Ocean View cabana on the second floor. It should more aptly be named 'Tree-Top' View as we could not see the ocean at all. At least we could hear it. We enjoyed sitting on our balcony listening to the waves. The balcony was shared with the room next door which was not ideal, although we never saw anybody sitting there. 

This room also lacked key card access. Instead it had a key that was used to lock the door from both the inside and outside. We had to stay together or keep track of each other to access our room. We requested to move again the following Wednesday.
Our third and final room was on the ground floor of an Ocean View cabana. It's the one on the left in the photo below. Our patio faced the beach (loved the view) in full sun until noon. We tended to pull chairs under the trees for shade in the morning then sit on the patio later in the day. The front door had key card access. The back door had a key which was handy for when we went to the beach. In Goldilocks terminology, this room was just right.
I should mention the beds. They are smaller than a double, but bigger than a single. In each room, there was one bed that was less uncomfortable than the other. We chose to sleep in one bed and store most of our stuff on the other because there was very little storage space. The closet had two small drawers (with broken bottoms) and a rod with attached hangers. These photos are deceiving because they were taken before we finished moving. The rooms look relatively tidy.


Staying four-weeks was a luxury we totally appreciated. We had lots of time to fit in all the things we wanted to do. We soon settled into a pleasant daily routine.

We would get up by 8 a.m. most days, put on our swimsuits and cover-ups and stop at the pool bar to fill a Bubba mug with cappuccino for my husband on our way to breakfast. 

Every other day or so, my husband would use his laptop to access the internet checking in with family and friends at home. Internet cards with a secure ID and password were available for purchase at the front desk for CUC$2 per hour. Wi-fi was only accessible in the lobby, restaurant and pool bar area. Internet was slow and unreliable, but better than nothing. 

After breakfast, we often headed to the beach to sit in the shade and read. We swam in the ocean almost everyday. I liked to swim with a snorkel and mask. My husband preferred swim goggles. Sometimes, we just played in the waves or floated enjoying the warm ocean currents. We liked to rinse off the salt water in the outdoor showers and pool before heading back to the shade to relax some more. 
Sometimes, late in the afternoon, I would sit in the sun on the beach.
We liked to walk the length of the beach. One time, we signed out a sea kayak from the beach activity centre and paddled out to the reef off the beach at the Farallon. It was fun, but I had trouble steering. My husband's instructions to "just paddle properly" didn't help. We probably should have taken two single kayaks. 

There was also a catamaran and wind surfer available, but we never got around to booking those. Luckily, there were plenty of other fun things to do to keep us happily occupied.

We loved riding our bikes in Cuba. Some days we would bike in the morning. Other days, we set off later in the afternoon. In 27 days, I rode 15 times covering 570 km total. My husband rode 17 times covering ~600 km. Our longest ride was 70 km to El Macho. Our shortest, yet most difficult, ride was 12 km up the Bayamo Road and back. 
For variety and a change of pace, we also liked to hike. We went on about five different epic hikes. To qualify as 'epic', the hike had to be challenging and take longer than 1.5 hours. 
I have detailed our routes with photos in two separate posts titled "Biking Marea del Portillo" and "Hiking Marea del Portillo". 

We never rode the horses parked behind our resort, but we did stop by regularly to 'chat'. 
Sometimes we fed bananas to the pig which passed by the beach late in the day. She was rummaging for sea grapes that fall from the trees. Sea grapes are a tiny tasty fruit (the size of a grape) surrounding a large seed. Wilfred the lifeguard collected and washed some for us to try once.
Sheep and goats also roamed free munching on grass and plants in the late afternoon. It was fun watching them wandering around the resort.
Depending on our activities, we would either eat lunch at the buffet (noon to 2 p.m.) or at the pool grill where food was served until 5 p.m. Dinner was served from 6-9:30 p.m. We ate at the buffet at either the Marea or the Farallon. Some nights we walked to the Farallon and some nights we took the Golf cart. We also tried the à la carte restaurants at both sites. They were fine, but honestly we preferred the variety available at the buffet.


A lot of people complain about the food in Cuba. It was wholesome, real food with enough variety to satisfy me. I enjoyed filling my plate three times a day with things that I liked. I love eating when I'm hungry without having to think about cooking. What's not to like?

My husband didn't think the food was spicy enough, so he has already bought a bottle of Frank's Red Hot sauce and black pepper for our next trip. The lack of 'spice' suited me just fine. I was recently diagnosed with a few food sensitivities. Turns out I'm highly reactive to black pepper and hot pepper spices.

On Fridays, a pig is roasted on a spit on the beach and served at dinner as a special treat.
For a change of venue, we took a horse and carriage ride (CUC$4 each return) to Ferlin a restaurant in Marea. We could have walked. Ferlin is only ~4 km from the hotel, but it is dark after dinner and the carriage ride was fun. Dinner at the Ferlin was delicious. 
One of the great things about vacations is meeting all sorts of people and making new friends. Sometimes, we arranged to have dinner with friends. Often we just hung out chatting and laughing over drinks either before or after dinner. Socializing is a huge part of the fun.


A band played every night on stage at the pool starting ~8:30 p.m. If there was a show scheduled, it started ~9 p.m. We would listen to the band and watch the start of the show, heading off to bed by 9:30 p.m. We were usually yawning and tired from all our activities. Sometimes we managed to stay up until 10 p.m.

We heard there was a disco at the beach bar from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. We stayed up late one night to check it out, arriving early to get a seat. We soon realized the disco wasn't our thing.


Sunwing offers a whole list of fun excursions. Most people agree it is better to wait to book when you arrive.
We signed up for the Open Sea Tour on our last Saturday. We thoroughly enjoyed our day on the boat chatting with new friends. Snorkeling was spectacular just off the coast at Punta Piedra ('sister' Amigo Club 5 km down the road from our hotel). Lunch was delicious on the island and the white sand was divine. We highly recommend this excursion.
"Ahh... this is the life." 

I found myself repeating this phrase a lot both in my journal and out loud while in Cuba.


All too soon our four weeks were gone and it was time to head home. Wednesdays are strange at the resort. Most guests depart by 3 p.m. It is very quiet until new guests arrive after 10 p.m. We enjoyed three such Wednesdays before it was our Wednesday to pack up and head home.

Montreal departed at 1:30 p.m. and Toronto at 3 p.m. Luggage was collected in two separate locations in the lobby identified with signs. We had to check out by noon. For those who paid extra, late check out to Toronto was 2 p.m.

It was a hot day. We dressed lightly packing warmer clothes in a bag. I was worried our carry-on might exceed the limit, but it wasn't even weighed at the airport. I guess overall luggage is lighter on the return trip due to generous donations people leave behind. 
The bus ride took a full two hours never driving faster than 65 kph on rough roads with lots of tight twists and turns through Manzanillo detouring around construction on the main road. This time I stayed awake enjoying the scenery. 

It took two buses to transport all the Toronto-bound passengers. We were happy to get on the first bus with our luggage. At the airport, all the bags are unloaded. Unclaimed bags are left unattended until the next bus arrives.

We brought a plastic glass and partial carton of wine bought in Toronto. Standing outside, crowding under the shelter when it started to rain, we enjoyed one last drink before check-in.
We never realized how truly awful the airport in Manzanillo is until our return trip. Once our drink was finished, we joined the crowds in the airport to check our luggage. There were two lines. It was hot, but didn't take long.

Next we joined a line heading up steep stairs in a corridor. There was only one Customs booth open. It was even hotter in this line. People with mobility issues were very unstable on the stairs. We were soaked in sweat by the time we finally got through. 

In the departure lounge, we sat under the air conditioner to cool off before searching for food. With an 8 p.m. flight time, we were hungry. Unfortunately, there was nothing to buy except rum, beer, pringles and one dry salami sandwich. Next time we'll pack a snack from the hotel.

At 8 p.m. we all lined up at the door expecting to board. It was pouring rain. No announcements were made. We stood in line for an hour before the door finally opened. We were told afterwards that flights can't board in the rain because everybody would get soaked outside. Now we know.

* * * * *
As I look at these photos, I think how quickly my tan is fading. Thank goodness memories last much longer. We loved our Stay in Cuba. 

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  1. Yep that was a great way to spend February!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you Karine. It was challenging figuring out how to write this one. I hope you're feeling better after your surgery.

  3. Sounds like a great time Beth and I am sure you and Lee are in for a lot more adventures. Enjoy.