Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience

Years have passed since I’ve been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort. As you may have guessed, resorts are not my thing.

Friends back “home” are incredulous when I regale them with tales of Varadero (AKA Cuban Cancún) or the cayos – small islands off the coast made accessible by environmentally-disastrous causeways built to bring the tourist hordes. With some 20 Lonely Planet guidebooks under my belt, treks into jungles where no solo woman before me dare tread, intrepid back-country camping and off-the-grid surviving, their first questions, inevitably, are: you?! At a resort? Why? You don’t drink, the beach bores you and the sun wreaks havoc on your Irish complexion – do you really need more freckles?! What’s the draw?

I understand their confusion. They know me, but they don’t know Cuba, these well-meaning friends. They do not know August with no air conditioning or eating some kind of pork product daily – or more often still. They’ve never been jarred awake at 6 every morning by the pop and buzz and blare of recorded trumpets followed by live young communists screeching principles. They know not of living with no telephone and only four channels (now five – woohoo!) of state TV, or cohabitating with termites to the point of total closet/bed/living room furniture collapse. Intrusive neighbors, migraine-inducing regguetón. Blackouts. Noxious, obligatory fumigations. The sprint for a guagua too full to stop for more passengers or lugging a propane tank, bicycle or sack of yuca up five flights of stairs. They know none of this. But I do. Intimately. Maddeningly. Ad nauseam.

But rather than describe the attraction of an all-inclusive in similar pitying detail, I’ll boil the attraction, for me, down to three things: cheese, hot showers, and ESPN. So when a friend (who shall remain nameless) suggested we spend a weekend at an all-inclusive, I jumped.

Here are my impressions of the Cuban todo incluido experience, circa Christmas 2015:

– Cuban tourism authorities are completely clueless that non-Christian (or non-Christmas-celebrating) visitors travel at this time of year. The resort where I stayed was festooned with every nöel-themed cliché you can imagine, from the plastic tree with gaudy metallic balls to faux snow and giant Merry Christmas banners. The quartet even played carols each night at the buffet. I was embarrassed for the Cubans (how fast they appropriate some of the worst of US consumerist culture!), while cringing for the Sikhs, Jews, Muslims and others who probably thought coming to Cuba would spare them this onslaught. Think again: it’s only going to get worse.

– I dub those tourists who only know Cuba through the resort lens the “masses of asses.” And they’ve earned the moniker for the shiterature they’re reading on vacation. Granted, about 20% were reading on digital devices – but even if every single one of them was diving into Dickens or Dawkins, that leaves 80% who are reading complete crap. The 50-tome library dominated by Danielle Steele, Ken Follet and other straight-to-paperback scribes. The poolside sunbathers with their Barbara Taylor Bradford. The guy smoking a stogie in the garden engrossed by Clive Cussler. I get that they’re on vacation. They want something light. But since when does light=formulaic and mindless? Ever since light became lite, I guess. So I dub this holiday reading by the masses of asses: (Lite)rature and suggest they check out Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer or Junot Díaz next vacay.

– Man titties: pink and hairy, glistening with sunblock and sweat. Overall impression? Gross.

– This particular resort was fairly, refreshingly light on jineteros/as and their janes/johns, but this doesn’t seem to be the case everywhere, if these experiences relayed by Here is Havana readers are indicative. Nevertheless, Cubans are (almost) always on the prowl. To wit: a nahwey from Centro Habana tried to pick me up when I entered the water near where he and his friend were lying on the beach. He took it as a sign. Not an illogical assumption, but incorrect: I just had to pee.

– One question which kept occurring to me as I surveyed my surroundings was: when did Deadheads quit tour and start designing resort wear? (Probably once Touch of Grey was released). Psychedelic and sexy but supremely comfortable – stealing into hotel rooms to rob wardrobe never crossed my mind before this trip.

– Streams of people made their way to the beach each dusk to watch the sunset. I’m happy for them. Happy they’re doing it. Everyone should be as fortunate as me – to have seen so many Cuban sunsets: from valley to sea to summit, coast-to-coast. But never before from a boat, which is odd indeed. Especially on an island. Especially for an ocean-faring waif like myself. It puts the ‘no boat’ rule and resource scarcity into sharp, stark perspective. I’ve lived here for 14 years and have never seen a sunset from Cuban waters. WTF?! [note to self: must rectify].

– Then there’s what I call the Tourist Tabula Rasa. Most folks in resorts haven’t a fucking clue wat Cuba is, was, or where it’s headed. Granted, none of us really has a grasp on the last, but the all-inclusive tourist bubble and how it dovetails (or doesn’t) with the Cuban reality is a dangerous thing. And scary. I imagine the guy with bigger boobs than me and his wife brandishing the schmaltzy zirconia necklace back home at a cocktail party: “Cuba? There’s awesome cheese and great hot water showers. Plus, there’s satellite – I thought it was going to be just government TV!”

They’re wrong, of course, but for me, at least for this weekend, they’re right: the cheese – blue, Manchego, Jarlsberg – was sublime. I stuffed myself full of it, took a long, hot shower and kicked back on the bed to watch the B James/S Curry Cavaliers/Warriors showdown. Conner Heaven.

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15 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

15 responses to “Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience

  1. Pingback: Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience | Cuba on Time

  2. bsenka

    What resort was this? It doesn’t sound very much like my experiences on plenty of resorts all over Cuba.

    Everywhere I’ve been, for most tourists I’ve met up with, seeing as much as they can OFF the resort is priority number one. The primary attraction of an all-inclusive is that the whole package almost always costs several hundred dollars less than airfare alone. So you pay less, you have your AC, clean water, all the food and drink you want, and a safe place to keep your things while you go explore. You can get pretty adventurous when you know that the worst case scenario is a return to comfort.

    Don’t discount the value of “resort life” to tourists either though. When it’s -40 at home, there’s nothing more relaxing than at least a few days in the blazing sun while drinking the best coffee and rum you’ve ever had, and not having to do ANYTHING.

    • This was in Jibacoa – my favorite beach this side of the island. Not near an intl airport and usually not on the Canadian package cheaper than airfare itinerary. The coffee (I only drink espresso), sucked, but Im spoiled!

      • bsenka

        Jibacoa is a strange animal. You’d think people going there would be doing so specifically because of it’s proximity to Havana, but it really does seem like it’s the people who never want to leave their sun lounger who are more likely to go there. I’m not sure what that is. Contrast it with Cayo Coco, where so many people are paying to fly to Havana for day trips that there is a waiting list. I’ve seen far more of Cuba using the Cayos as a home base than I did when we used to go to the Havana-Varadero area.

        The worst Cuban espresso is still better than the best Canadian coffee shops! Someday I’ll find your place when I’m in Havana so I can try your brews!

  3. franz

    I’m looking for a ex-pat group for the island of Cuba, is anyone aware of such a group existing in Cuba yet??
    looking to x-pat to Cuab and needs a friend,

    • There are very very few expats here and those that are here dont comport themselves (as a group) as in other latitudes. No expat bars or hangouts, groups or clubs. It is not legal for foreigners to buy property here so most of what you get is embassy staff, business people working in joint ventures, journalists and Canadian snow birds here for the winter.

  4. Mauricio

    Good to have you back blogging, Conner. I was beginning to get worried that it was a medical issue or something keeping you away from your keyboard.

    Absolutely love your writing and this was no exception.

    So YOU are the one peeing in the ocean! Now I know why the Cuban waters are always so warm. 🙂

    • Keeping me away from my keyboard: Ive been trying hard to find an agent for my book, Here is Havana, about – you guessed it: the past 14 years in Havana. Hopefully Ill have good news to post on this front soon. thanks for being so patient (you DO learn that in Cuba, eh? jejeje) for the next read. Happy 2016!!

  5. When Conner mentioned the “resort life”, it reminded me a joke that a Cuban guy told me at the Havana Airport while waiting for a 12 hours delayed Cubana flight to Holguin.

    “ A guy has been in Heaven for more than six months and was increasely bored. He decided to approach Saint Peter and asking to be transferred to Hell for a change of scenery. Saint Peter warned him: “This can be a life (?) changing experience. Why don’t you go first to Hell for a 24 hours period and, when you’re back, you’ll decide what to do”.
    So the guy went to Hell and upon arrival he was offered a lovely cocktail and taken to a lovely room with A/C and fantastic view to the beach. After a long shower, he went to a restaurant where he was served a four courses dinner with a fresh grilled lobster and a bottle of wine. After dinner, a huge party on the beach with music, dancing and a lot of drinks.
    The morning after, nursing a hangover, he was back to Heaven in Saint Peter office. He has already decided to move permanently to Hell and he said so.
    This time, when he arrived to Hell, he found a completely different atmosphere. The room was tiny with an old bed, no A/C, no hot shower and no window. The food was scarce and atrocious. No music and dance and people was unhappy looking.
    He approached a devil to complain. He said: ”How possible? Yesterday everything was so different..”.
    The devil replied: “Yesterday you were a FOREIGN VISITOR, today you are a RESIDENT…”.

  6. Alicia

    Conner I love your description of the A/I. I personally prefer to stay in casas where you get to meet and engage with the locals. I speak Spanish so that does help.

    Also the food is so much better, it’s prepared with love. I have had some delicious breakfasts in casas, freshly squeezed mango juice, A pot of Cuban coffee, omlete. It really sets you up for the day.

    I have a/1 food to be repetitive and sometimes recycled. Which hotel did you stay at in Jibacoa?

    Was it the 4 star posh one or the 3 star next door?. I stayed there last year and I have to say the receptionists were very cheeky. They would flirt outrageously with my boyfriend.

    The public relations woman – a married Cuban in her 50’s, actually slipped him her mobile no. when she thought I was not looking, she slipped it to him when he was at the buffet. Cuban women have no shame!

    He had to leave earlier than me due to his work, when he would call a 50 year old hag would chat him up on the hotel phone, it would be late at night, she would cut me off and I would wander down to the desk to find her flirting with him on the reception phone.

    The security at that hotel were out of control. A few of them would drink regularly all day with a could of Canadian women, both of whom had left their kids at home.

    One had done a stint in rehab in Canada and was wild.. The pair of them invited two of the security guard along with the lifeguard to a part at a nearby Campismo followed by lunch at a restaurant a few miles from the resort. The lifeguard had abandoned a pool full of children on a busy Saturday I could not believe that he could get away with it.

    All hell would break loose at weekends when the Cubans checked in. They spent the whole weekend standing in the pool, not even leaving to use the toilet, they would hand their trays to guests for a refill.

    They pissed in the pool and left it with a film of yellow on top and it was not cleaned for days, hence no one used the pool when we were there.

    The rubbish left behind after the Cubans had left was unbelievable, empty cans discarded everywhere, empty wrappers. They would raid the snack bar on the day they left and what they could not eat they would stuff into carrier bags, hot dogs burgers, pizzas all stuffed in and carried home.

    Staff at Tropico have the most hands off remote control management I have ever encountered in any hotel anywhere. Our waitress was continually on h=the hustle for the shirt off your back. ‘Oh I love that dress’ ‘ Great sandals’ that was when she was not coming on to my boyfriend.

    Other than that the rooms was nice, we had cable channel tv. could watch a movie, there was a bottle of rum in the fridge. Drinks were ok, grounds were lovely but staff really did need to be reigned in..

    It did put me off all inclusives in Cuba.

  7. Agreed that there is a place for the on-resort captive tourists however we prefer to grab a map, pick a direction and go. Local culture and experiences make the trip worthwhile I couldn’t imagine it any other way.

  8. Line

    I find this post most insensitive and very judgemental. I go to All-Inclusives, for unwinding (not having to make my bed, clean, cook, plan meals, etc.). At home, I read essays, history books and such, but on vacations, I read Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, etc. to relax and turn my brain off. I don’t pretend that my trips to Cuba (or Mexico, for that matter) are experiences in discovery or exploration. Just plain rest and relaxation. By the way, I use washrooms all the time. My main purpose is not getting drunk and misbehaving. I do find the fun and games typical of resorts silly and extremely tacky, and I stay as far away as possible from them. I cringe every time the “bus guides” make jokes about how many times the Canadians will get drunk on their vacation (just once but for the whole week) and I hear Guantamera, but I need my week of warm weather in the midst of winter. Sorry if it doesn’t fit with your vision of Cuba.

    • Hi Line. Thanks for reading and writing in. Sorry to have offended. Everyone is entitled to their R&R, but rather than my vision of Cuba, it’s my vision of all-inclusive resorts – in whatever context or country – driving this post. Resorts are environmentally damaging, culturally insipid, and economically inane (the cost-benefit analysis of resort guests’ outlay vs investment and how much money stays in the local economy is just not practical or sustainbable). If there were NO other alternative for unwinding with lovely sun and sand during a cold, harsh winter, I might brook your argument, but there are many other ways to do this that are more positive – for both traveler and recipient country. Next time, why not consider a casa particular at Jibacoa, Playa Giron, La Boca, or Playas del Este? This is also a good strategy for evading the silly/tacky (locals wearing stiletto heels to the beach notwithstanding!).

      • Line

        I am not interested at all in a casa particular because I do not want the “ultra-personal”, close experience of a “host”. It’s not for me at all. I am uncomfortable with strangers in closed quarters. I don’t need the cultural experience in the midst of winter. I do like to travel to big cities, like Vienna, Athens, Prague, but still in a hotel. Casas particulares are not for everybody and certainly not for me.

      • I agree casas are not for everyone – there are independent apartments and houses for rent so obviates the ‘strangers in closed quarters’ factor. Im not sure I understand ‘not needing the cultural experience in the midst of winter’ but hey different strokes! Happy 2017.

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