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Before I left home I made use of two online sources-Cubaism and Cuba Travel Network– to book eleven of my eighteen nights’ worth of accommodation. I am happy to say that they were 100% reliable- there were no hassles or mix-ups at all. Everyone was expecting me and it took very little time to check in. By the time I got back to Toronto I even found emails from both companies asking for evaluations of each of their hotels I had booked!
The one drawback of pre-booking your accommodation is that you lose the flexibility of making it up as you go along. Given that I had never been to Cuba before, one reason I booked my accommodation was to eliminate the need to worry about finding each night’s room at the end of a day of cycling, especially given the scarcity of accommodation along stretches of the road I cycled in Oriente. I also felt better having pre-paid for the rooms via credit card while I was still at home, instead of having to have tourist pesos or credit card ready to pay as I travelled along. The prices ranged from $110. CDN for the night at Brisas Guardalavaca to $27. a night for stays at Islazul Moa, Guantanamo, and Hotel Niquero. The 5 CUC at the Campismo Yacubo Abajo on the way from Baracoa to Guantanamo was the cheapest by far! The Islazul hotels were as cheap as most casas particulares but the food was much worse!
In retrospect, I needn’t have booked the room at El Castillo in Baracoa because there are lots of casas available- but El Castillo was a terrific place to stop for a couple of days. One can get a little bit too caught up in the “saving $25.” mindset when bicycle touring- I figure when you’re spending $1500. + on your adventure a few more dollars does not really make that much of a difference. Maybe it is just a sign that I’m getting older and appreciate some comfort and luxury at the end of a hard day working in the sun!
Casas particulares were a different story. I stayed in various casas a third of the time (Holguin, Banes, Mayari, Santiago, and Manzanillo). Of the three I had pre-arranged with phone calls the night before, only one honoured the reservation. The rest did make arrangements with another casa owner to put me up for the night. Food at the casas was plentiful and sometimes even memorable!
The Best Casa Particular(es)
It is a toss-up between Casa Liba in Holguin and Casa Delicias in Banes and San Carlos Hostal in Santiago. Each provided a comfortable place to relax and made me feel at home. The owners were all very sociable and helpful- making phone calls, providing information, accommodating my early morning breakfast requests, and coming up with something not involving meat or fish for a vegetarian guest. I’d recommend any and all of them to a friend visiting Cuba and looking for a place to stay.
The Best All-Inclusive Resort
I stayed at the Guardalavaca Brisas, the Chivirico Los Galeones, and Marea del Portillo’s Club Amigo Farallon. They all provide exactly what you’d expect for the money you’re paying so in that sense they were all fine. I did find the atmosphere at the Chivirico resort the nicest- this is probably because it was the smallest of the three, with only 32 units available (and some of those were apparently shut down for renovation). It also had a Canadian flag draped in the central courtyard. I thought I had dropped in on a Canuck retirement community! If you’re not from The True North it might be less charming.
The other two places were massive in comparison. I will admit to looking around at my hundreds of fellow diners at suppertime, after unexpectedly having a pretty difficult time putting an interesting veggie meal together, and thinking- “What the hell am I doing here?” Well, eating as much as I wanted of food that was filling if not much else, filling up my water bottles for the next day’s ride and putting them in the room fridge, watching satellite TV in my room, which was nicely cooled thanks to air conditioning, walking along some pretty nice stretches of beach- that is what I was doing. In the end, you just have to stand back and say- “It’s all good”. In its own way, of course!
The Best Islazul Hotel
Islazul is the budget line of Cuban state-owned hotels. $30. seems to get you a room in most of them. I stayed in the following during my trip- Hotel Miraflores in Moa, Hotel Guantanamo, and Hotel Niquero. While all were in need of some tender loving care and maintenance, all were quite adequate for the money they were charging. Showers worked, the rooms were secure, the front desk people were helpful, breakfast was included.
At Moa’s Miraflores they had a breakfast buffet which made for an efficient way of dealing with the morning diners streaming in at 7:00 a.m. The Guantanamo decided to go with individual orders for breakfast, which would then be taken individually back to the kitchen, and brought out individually. I got there at 6:55 a.m. and watched one rather inefficient waitress put down the place settings at each table. She was still at it at 7:15 as more and more diners streamed in. Still no coffee or even the hint of food or even of an order- no, each time someone new came in the most important thing to do was return to the area where the plates and cutlery were stored and return to set yet another table. I actually left at 7:20 figuring that it would take another hour before I would actually be served. I had a couple of energy bars instead and set off for the 100 km. ride to Santiago. That evening I’d have a great supper at the San Carlos Hostal, along with a couple of mojitos.
The Best Food
Cuba would not seem to be a destination for anyone looking for great cooking. Looking for great vegetarian cuisine? That is even more ridiculous. Somehow even the pepper tastes bland in Cuba- past its expiry date or diluted, who can say how they do it! But decent meals can be had here and there. Señor Mezerene’s cucinera Lydia at the Casa Liba in Holguin prepared some very tasty meals during my two-day stay there; the folks at the Casa Las Delicias filled the table with edible dishes. All in all, the three best places I found for vegetarian food were at the already-mentioned San Carlos Hostal in Santiago, the Casa Liba in Holguin, and a restaurant in Baracoa called El Colonial.
The Worst Restaurant
In Bayamo I found my first vegetarian restaurant. The most recent edition of Lonely Planet’s Cuba has what, in hindsight, is a ridiculously generous review of its offerings. Granted I paid for what I got in moneda nacional (perhaps the equivalence of 1 CUC), so it may be unkind to be overly critical. However, as sad as the overcooked and reheated spaghetti and a micro dollop of gel-like tomato sauce looked as it was placed in front of me, to go along with some on-the-way-to stale bread, the worst thing was the indifference shown by the late-teen/early 20’s waitress.
She could only look at me as if were mad when I asked her if she was a vegetarian. I never did press her to repeat exactly why the door of the restaurant was locked at 6:45 when I tried to get in and why she locked it again as soon as I got in- and my question as to why pollo and cerdo were on the menu got a cursory “no se”. I am just glad I wasn’t sitting there with more yumas with Lonely Planet guides. Like the Hotel Guantanamo at breakfast, this place reminded me of the saying that in a socialist paradise the workers pretend to work and the government pretends to pay them. Had I not been a vegetarian I may well have ended up at this place instead-
The door was open, it wasn’t busy…but no grain or tofu burgers! Vegetarianism does not really seem to be something that the locals want to embrace. It’s got to be a poor little piglet on a stake over some coals. However, I should remember that 95% of the folks living around me right here in Toronto are no more interested in vegetarianism than Cubanos are. Time to end my little rant…
The Hotel with the Best Views
El Castillo in Baracoa is a great place to stay for the views alone. The excellent breakfast, the okay lunches by the swimming pool, the very clean room and the friendliness of the staff- well, it is everything that Restaurante Vegetariano that I told you about just now was not! Click on some of the following panoramas to make them bigger! They were all taken from the balcony of the El Castillo.
I also really liked the views from my balcony at the Brisas Galeones. Yes, the 5 CUC’s the manager charged me to change my room from an inland facing to a sea-view room may have been easy money for him, and yes it was dark at 6:30 anyways so the view wasn’t there for long- but in the meanwhile it was great to sit there and inhale the scenery. I rested my camera on the balcony railing and got these shots near sunset-