I make no secret of the fact that I don’t like the all-inclusive lifestyle. It’s just not my way of travelling. I would much rather go completely self-catered and have to fend for myself every night. I’d rather risk not having a place to stay at all than join in the scrum of the same all you can eat buffet for every single meal.
This year however, I’m ashamed to say that I caved into the temptation. What with being super busy at work, studying for my PT qualifications and getting ready to move house, I was craving holiday. All I wanted was some sun overhead and some sand beneath my feet.
So when my best friend invited me on her girls holiday with a work colleague, I didn’t hesitate. It was a week by the sea with guaranteed good weather. Why would I?
We stayed at the Hotel Playa Costa Verde on the Eastern Coast, towards the south of Cuba. It was big, spacious with a nice pool- and the staff were very friendly. It was fine. But that’s all. Clean and comfortable, but not a place that you make memories or get that ‘best holiday ever’ feeling.
So of course, after about a day (when we’d figured out that everyone there was either English, American or Canadian and that the food wasn’t that great) we started to get somewhat claustrophobic. It’s so easy to fall into that trap of staying at the resort because everything is ‘free’ (or already paid for at least). When you’re tight on budget it can be hard to convince yourself to step out into the unknown where- lord forbid- you’ll have to pay for your drinks.
If there’s one piece of advice that I have, particularly in a country as incredible as Cuba, it’s don’t fall into that trap!
I am so thankful that we mustered the courage to venture outside of the resort. I’m also very grateful for the fact that my travel buddies were as keen for adventure as I was! The days we spent away from the hotel, and it’s awful buffet were the ones that I’ll never forget.
The Real Cuba and the Reasons you Should Always Leave Your Resort!
Most resorts that you stay in have their own portion of beach that’s associated with the hotel. This is generally fine for your first day or two as you settle in and relax. Before long, however, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the same people that you sit next to every day at dinner. And there are a lot of them. These beaches are the tourist hot spots, they can be quite built up and every now and then they play host to the organised fun games that are put on by the ‘activities’ staff at the hotel. Fine if that’s your thing – but it’s not mine.
If you prefer an unspoiled and secluded beach, it’s worth it to make the effort to walk further down the sand and away from the strip of hotels. If that’s not possible, then you can usually get a bus to a beach that’s removed from the hotel. It sounds like a lot of effort, but buses are cheap (we paid about 50 pence for a day pass!) and the staff at the reception desk should be more than helpful in pointing you in the right direction.
One simple bus trip can take you to some of Cuba’s true gems- deserted, unspoiled, free of both tourists and litter. The sand has the consistency of icing sugar and the colour of the water is to die for. You can usually spot more wildlife in these beaches too, because there aren’t as many people to scare them away! Make sure you clean up after yourself. No one wants to be the person who spoils paradise.
Once we realised how easy and quick the buses were to catch from the hotel, we were eager to explore Holguin, the nearest city. Smaller, and less well known than Havana and Santiago de Cuba, Holguin still has a lot to offer. We were so happy to just to be wandering around a completely new area. If you enjoy a bit of a mindless wander on holiday (and come on, who doesn’t) Cuba’s cities are the perfect place to start. Colourful houses, classic cars and beautiful Spanish colonial architecture make you feel like you’re walking around a film set. There are plenty of stunning churches to take a look at, lots of open space and fabulous archways to shelter from the sun. There are always street musicians playing in the various squares, which really adds to the lively atmosphere.
By the time we made our trip into Holguin, I was pretty much not drinking on this holiday. I think all-inclusive resorts trick you with their lure of ‘unlimited free alcohol’. It’s never very good quality and the cocktails all end up tasting the same. Namely, of sugar. That changed the moment we stepped into a local bar in San Jose square in Holguin. We were waiting to get the bus back to the hotel and fancied a sit down. Obviously we couldn’t let this occasion pass without trying a true Cuban Mojito. They cost all of about 3 Cuban Dollars each (around £2) and were truly delicious. It was worth leaving the hotel if just for those Mojitos.
Even just on the bus journey away from your resort you can get some spectacular photograph-moments. You can see anything from rolling hills and coffee plantations to goat farms and palm trees. On our trip into the city we decided to climb the 458 steps up to ‘The Hill of the Cross” (Loma de la Cruz). Unsurprisingly the 360 degree views of the city and it’s surrounding areas were breathtaking. Not an experience you can get sat by the pool eating free ice cream all day long.
If you don’t leave your resort for anything else, go for the friendly, open welcome of cuban people as you explore their city. Everyone is happy to chat, show you around, answer any questions- and ask their own as well. It’s one of those truly humbling experiences that makes you realise how ignorant Londoners can be to those around them. God forbid anyone stops them mid-commute to ask for directions. Everyone in Cuba was so happy and carefree – not to mention noticeably proud of their city, eager to show it off to these new visitors. It’s a way of life that’s a pleasure to be a part of, and I’d take that over resort life any day.