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.
20 responses to “Smell the Skin Cancer: An All-Inclusive Experience”
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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!
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!
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.
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!!
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…”.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
Do I understand this correctly? You needed a break from your daily reality of cold showers, no cheese, lack of TV, lugging things up stairs and your neighbors, Correct? So you chose to go to resort even though you think “Resorts are environmentally damaging, culturally insipid, and economically inane”.
What makes you different from the other guests? Is it the fact that you held the other guests in contempt for everything from possessing a body that you found “gross”, not being as well read as you, or not dressing in a way that you found pleasing?
I guess us “masses of asses” (not you of course, you’re different) should find a different way to get a break from our daily realities. You argue that “there are many other ways to do this that are more positive – for both traveler and recipient country.” Yet you didn’t take your own advice…
You got it! We humans are just a bundle of contradictions, aren’t we? While I was at this resort for three (one too many) days, I didn’t turn on AC, used my refillable water bottle, tipped Cuban staff heavily, spoke Spanish, didn’t have daily linen service, and dind’t let water run, I tried to protect and respect as best I could the country in which I live and love. Sorry you were offended by this post but I do think resort tourists – generally, not all of them certainly – are not the best stewards of the environment and respect for local culture.
Not taking my own advice: I definitely should – and not only as regards vacation plans…..
I am glad that I was not the only one who was offended by that post. In fact, I still think about it a lot, having returned recently from another week in the sun (but, rest assured, not in Cuba). I must be wrong again, but I was thinking that the resorts, per se, employ a lot of people and must put money in the pockets of the local suppliers too. As for the “casas”, the money goes in the owners pockets, and people who are self-catering, considering all the food and supplies shortages that we read about, must be taking food that should go to the locals. But, I know, I know, casas and appartments for rent in Cuba for short stays are ethical and make sense and resorts do not. And I suppose that there is no housing shortages in Cuba either, so the tourists who want to experience the “real” Cuba do not take anything away from Cubans.
So yes, resorts = bad, casas = good.
I wish it were as simple as resorts=bad, casas=good, but as with most things here, the reality is more complicated. An error in your facts points this up: resorts don’t put money in the pockets of local suppliers. This is all a state run operation (while resorts may be 49% foreign owned, all supplies come from state-run entities). And since the state is responsible for funding all health and education services, plus the food ration card and related subsidies, staying in a hotel or resort actually can help the most vulnerable here much more than staying in a casa particular. And there’s the housing crisis you mention. This is the #1 reason Im against Air BnB (again, staying in one of these casas is supporting Cuba’s 1%, the richest slice of society). Nevertheless, as other readers have pointed out: what’s the solution then? Don’t travel to Cuba? No, that’s not the solution. Rather, a piece of the puzzle lies in traveling more responsibly (in a more informed, interactive and environmentally-conscious way) and identifying opportunities for experiential travel rather than just laying on a beach or tooling around Havana for 36 hours on cruise ship shore leave.
One more thing: that you’re “still thinking about it” over a year later means I’ve done my job as a writer.
Sorry for coming into the conversation so late, just found it. I have been going to Cuba from 1998 until recently. I have traveled from Havana to Holguin utilizing the resorts as a home base. By day two on a resort I get the bug to rent a car and drive, wish it was a motorbike…
I think your assessment of the resort visitors are a bit harsh and heavily judgmental. Some of these couples have saved for the entire year to visit a Cuban resort. That being said they want to enjoy a beach where the water is warm and clear, sand that is soft on their feet, tropical drinks with fancy colors, dress up for dinner, maybe even sleep in. Just because they want to live in a paradise bubble for 7 days does not make them evil or stupid or uncultured. How can you possibly derive anything about them in 7 days? Who cares if they are fat, oily with suntan lotion, choose to read a pulp fiction novel or start their day with Champaign and orange juice? If the men were buffed and cultured and ate low fat yogurt would you then approve?
Who cares if they choose not to “explore the local culture”. Not everyone works for national geographic and not everyone wants to spend their short seven days riding around on the camels in Havana covered in diesel fuel and being reminded of just how lucky they are back home.
I watched Cuba go from empty store shelves back in 1999 to brand new stores everywhere, offering everything imaginable. This new economy has been driven by the tourist dollars, it’s that simple. I have had conversations with Cubans on the resorts, off the resort, with Cubans that work at the resorts and Cuban who still live on the system. I have been welcomed for dinners in their homes and at the same time I have had Cubans give me the worst stink eyes because I’m an evil capitalist. I have watched the maids in the resorts go from having nothing to having iphones and wearing Pumas.
I watched them start to buy homes, $5000.00 for a nice house in Moron, no loan needed, it was bought with resort tips and selling gifts left by the fat sweaty tourists. I have seen these same fat sweaty tourist drive into town and stop at the local school to deliver pencils, erasers, pens, calculators, you name it. I got to know one maid that has a closet at the resort stacked from floor to ceiling with stuff from the guests. She sold and traded with the gardeners and other staff that are not in the tip circuit.
The Cuban resorts back in 1999 to 2005 where incredibly nice but since then have gone down the toilet. I have no idea why but it’s the truth. Now when you land on a Cuban resort you can expect to get ill from the food, every drink is the same old frozen Slurpee mix that comes from a machine that never gets cleaned, the rooms are dismal, broken everything, no hot water, sometimes no water at all, lights don’t work, towels are stained and worn with holes in them, a/c works 50% of the time and the venting is so covered with crap and mold you wonder how the air even moves through it.
The smell of sewage is in the air, the food is half cooked and cross contamination is everywhere, most comes out of a can. I can’t even begin to explain the washrooms, toilet seats gone, no soap, no water, nothing to wipe off your hands, no lights at night. I saw an older lady (maybe 70) walk into a lobby washroom which had no lights, no toilet seat, no soap to wash up, nothing. How do I know, my wife just came out and almost threw-up because of the stench.
The resort staff have gone from being incredibly helpful to being put out because you ask for a fork. They spend a large amount of time on their cellphones doing an incredible job of ignoring you, all while wanting a decent tip. I’m sure there are diamonds in the rough but for the most part they would never last in a resort outside of Cuba. This idea that they struggle is compete joke. The amount of tips and gifts they get from each room over seven days is crazy. I went for dinner one evening at the resort worker’s house. From the outside it looked abandoned but the inside was fantastic. All new tile everywhere, nicer bathroom than the resort (for starters they had a toilet seat!), 55″ flat screen and a stocked bar that far exceeded the resorts bar.
Back to that couple who saved all year to visit Cuba. They arrive at the resort at 10pm, 40 people line up who just got off the bus, being served by one angry front desk person, two if they are lucky. They finally get their room key, there is no busboy to help them get their luggage to the other side of the resort. They drag their luggage through the dark because all the path lights have been broken for months. They final get to the room and the key doesn’t work, takes two hours to solve. They open the door, half the lights are burnt out, mold on the curtains, bed, tiles and lamp shades. The wires are hanging out from the receptacle, the taps are rusted and because of the lack of cold water pressure (no hot water) it takes you forever just to rinse your ass cheeks. The toilet will not flush unless you fill the garbage can with water and fill the tank. You realize the screen door lock is broken and the safe doesn’t work either. You slide your card in so the air con turns on, the sound of mechanical failure fills the room. You open the bar fridge to find a couple cans of flat Tukola, one bottle of water and two can of beer that will unlikely be stocked for the next 7 days. You call the front desk to ask about the hot water and they say they will send someone that never comes. You call back in the morning and inform them you called last night, they have no record of any issue for your room and you start the process again.
You head down to the fly covered buffet in the morning, the food is cold, the toaster burns the toast, there is no knob to adjust, it vanished long ago. You stand in a cattle line to get your two eggs, it takes forever because the chef for some reason can only fry two eggs at a time. You watch the breakfast staff pick up a serving spoon off the floor and put it back in the ice cold scrambled eggs (no gas for the burner again?). You leave a tip for the outstanding breakfast that if you had back home, you would have walked out on. You grab your wife’s hand and head for the pool only to be informed that there are no pool towels available. You jump in the water and wash away 253 days of your shitty job from back home while the pool guy is pouring chemicals into the pool two feet from you, blissfully not aware that you are there.
Lunch comes and you dine on pizza and fries, the only safe food to eat. You’re hoping that the al la carte Italian restaurant will be your savior but alas, most things on the menu are “not available”. As you sit in your dress pants sweating to death because the air conditioning is not working again, you order the soup, which is out of a can, you get your piece of chicken that is unrecognizable, you order a drink that never comes and at last, you leave another tip.
You decide to rent a car to get off the resort for a break from the incredible Cuban resort environment, see the countryside, mingle with people that are incredibly welcoming and kind and people that despise you. The car rental place opens at 9am. You go back and forth between lobby and the car rental place for the next four hours because nobody shows up until 1pm.
You are finally on the road, off the resort and stop at the first gas station to grab a quick cool drink, maybe another flat Tukola. Everyone inside looks at you like you just took a shit on the floor. You smile anyway, leave the change and you are off. You follow a bus for about a mile, face covered in diesel, pick up passengers at the intersection to contribute to the lack of transportation in Cuba, hoping that the locals will see that you are just a regular guy. You are not the past owner of Hershey or a Dupont family member, just a working stiff like them and although you may seem like a millionaire, you actually live paycheck to paycheck.
I apologize for the length of my rant, I couldn’t help but share my personal experience at the many resorts in Cuba I have stayed at. I go to a resort to be anonymous, to unplug from reality for 7 days. I don’t want to stay at a bed and breakfast anytime soon. I don’t want to spend my 7 days listening to how hard life is in Cuba, the struggle, the embargo, the Cuban five story or any story for that matter. As for feeling the hardships you talk about in Cuba, I’m painfully aware of them. When you save for a year and spend your week squatting over a toilet with no toilet paper or anything to wash your hands you, no hot water or any water, truly have “touched” the local experience.
Maybe that’s why the hotel occupancy rate in Cuba stalls at 50%, the resorts have turned into 2 star resorts, sold as 5 stars, Cuba does not have a single 4 star resort anywhere on the island, let alone a 5 star.
The tourist industry has created an absolute two tier system that Castro was hoping to avoid. It’s evident when you tour around the towns near the resorts and tour the towns that are nowhere near a resort. Depending on which side of this two tier system you live on I would assume your opinion of it may differ. I would hazard to guess that the Cubans working at these resorts would not want to see them close, where would they get their Pumas from and all the CUCs.
I guess the perfect solution would be to close all the big resorts in Cuba, have the Casa Particulars absorb the 3 million tourists. Might be tough with a population of 11 million Cubans. At least us tourists would be more interactive and environmentally-conscious on their 7 day holiday, right? Since were are on the topic of being environmentally conscious, have you been to a Cuban public beach, the amount of broken glass and garbage would make you wonder if the embargo was finally cancelled.
Last time I checked the red speed dial phone to Russia was disconnected and yet the Canadians, ignoring the ongoing and threatening Helms-Burton Act by the U.S., continue to trade with Cuba and support Cuba.
Here’s a thought, how about the fat greasy, unfashionably dressed tourists and their trashy beach novels take their $1.4 billion somewhere else, like Mexico or Costa Rica…problem solved.