It’s two in the morning, we’re in a foreign country not exactly known for free enterprise and we’ve been told (not exactly politely) to sit and wait while the desk clerk handles all the registrations for people who haven’t had their reservations lost. I couldn’t help but begin to pace. Realistically I knew they’d probably find something for us but where the hell was our reservation? I knew from my time searching for hotels a few days before that most of the non-crap Varadero hotels were full for this week. Were we going to end up at some dive well off the beach just to have a place to lay our heads?
Twenty minutes later we’re following a hulking security guard/bellhop down various twisting paths to what looks like an abandoned outbuilding. There were no lights anywhere, most of the illumination once we left the main hotel block was from the moon or a slight dim wash from the powerful floods at the hotel next door. This hotel was clearly not party central (we’d learn the next day that we arrived after the ‘disco’ shuts for the night) and we didn’t see another soul while getting to our room. Thankfully Hodor knew the way and we were eventually dumped into what one could certain call a ‘room’ and not much more.
First: some perspective. I’ve stayed in some not great places, I’m well aware that hotel standards differ in different countries etc… I’ve stayed in hostels and hotels all over the world, I regularly camp and sometimes rent a rugged cabin. This is all serving as preamble to say that I have a reasonable idea of what to expect when I walk into a lodging establishment of a certain quality. The Sunwing website had claimed this was a 3.5 star hotel, the hotel itself claimed to be 4 star on their entryway, the room we were put in that first night was neither. It was clean, I can say that for it, but spartan in the extreme. It was just wide enough for the two rock hard single beds that sat along each wall. (The pillows were seemingly inflatables.) One window face directly into the air conditioner for what we later learned was the kitchen for the a la carte restaurant and snack bar. The other window led directly into the corridor off which we’d entered. That window had a very flimsy lock and a curtain that really didn’t cover the entire window so you could easily wake up and see someone watching you sleep. A small tv from the 80s was perched precariously on a noisy old minifridge (neither of which seemed to function in any meaningful manner) and which occupied more or less the only free space in the room. The bathroom was tiny with a non functional sink and a shower that provided no hot water whatsoever. With a sigh we dumped our things, went back up to the lobby bar (through the darkness) had a quick rum punch as a nightcap then hit the hay. It was a measure of our fatigue that we were both out like a light.
Just before we’d left the check in desk the clerk had said “If you don’t like you’re room, you can return at 10 and we will see if we can move you.” That was a warning bell to me right there, I mean honestly have you ever heard a clerk in a decent hotel pre-emptively suggest you might not be happy in your room? The light of day revealed more about our first night’s stay. The room was one of two or three in this outbuilding which seemed to predate the existing hotel complex. It housed the beach bathrooms (which never smelled great and which were directly under our door,) the a la carte restaurant, snack bar and accompanying kitchens (usually reeking of fish) and the patio on which I imagine the original hotel had served some meals. If I had to guess (based on the complete desertion when we arrived, not even emergency lights were on) we were the only guests in this building. Most of the rest of the upper section we were appeared to be being used to store overflow furniture and in all honesty this room felt like what they probably used as overflow/spare staff sleeping quarters when needed. I could have easily made do with it (and would have been happy to on my backpacking travels) but even at the discount price we’d paid it wasn’t acceptable for the cost. Needless to say we were willing to take our chances on what else they might have for a room so after a quick breakfast we presented ourselves to the front desk.
The desk clerk of course went on again about how full they were but eventually consented to show us a recently vacated room to which we could be moved after it was cleaned. Somewhat unfortunately for the hotel’s claims the woman who shared the elevator with us (and the security dude) started chatting to us and it turned out that she’d been stuck in the same room on the first night… had been moved… and when their second room had turned out to not have a functional toilet the “full” hotel had found them yet another room to move to. In the end though the room they showed us was fine. Probably three times the square footage of the other room, beds softer than a concrete block, a shower that was instantly hot and a faucet that actually delivered water. Coupled that with a window that actually gave natural light (and a balcony!) and we were more than satisfied. Of course since they hadn’t cleaned it we couldn’t move in for a while but since the sum total of our ambitions for the first day were to explore the beach and swim/read it wasn’t a big deal.
Actually looking at the hotel in the sunlight revealed a small but quite pleasant place. Because the hotel was set back from the road a bit on a fairly narrow lot the distance to be beach was a lot shorter than most of the other resorts. The main level ring around the pool consisted of the lobby, the buffet, the ‘disco’ and two lines of what the resort called duplexes which seemed to be a room fairly similar to our second one with a spiral staircase up to a second bedroom above. The rest of the rooms were on the floors above. A largish pool bar sat next to the small main pool while a ‘river’ of shallower water snaked up to what was no doubt once a functional water feature but was now a block of concrete making it look as if a soviet sub was about to surface in the courtyard. A small stage faced the patio by the bar behind which stood the building where our first room had sat, behind which was the beach. For the most part everything was clean and tidy but showing various levels of wear. Pretty much everything needed a coat of paint and anything that needed any kind of maintenance was likely shut down. From my understanding this is pretty common in Cuba but after discovering that the construction next door on a new mega resort was owned by the same company I would not be at all surprised to discover that our hotel was simply in low cost stasis mode until the new hotel opened and our was torn down to build villas or something.
I’d heard horror stories about the food in Cuba and while some of them were perhaps exaggerated… meals were definitely one of the less pleasant things about the trip. The reasons for this are probably many-fold. Some ingredients are no doubt difficult to get consistently, the cooks are not well trained and the job likely doesn’t pay well and doesn’t involve the fringe benefits of tipping that most other hotel positions provide. That said there’s really no excuse for some of the practices. Food from previous meals will constantly turn up in following meals, usually not even disguised. The burgers you saw thawing in an unsanitary manner at the snack bar are likely the same burgers (now chopped in half) that are on today’s breakfast layout. Variety was pretty much non-existent. Actual food layouts themselves (particularly of the nicer things) disappeared quickly and were not replaced, cheeses being the most prominent example. More than anything else though the thing that killed me was the blandness. Pretty much everything I sampled had little flavour and as someone who does a lot of cooking I realised just how little effort would have been required to take things up several notches. Even dessert was a collection of different looking bar cakes that underneath were the same vaguely sweet spongecake with vaguely sweet layers or frosting at more or less tasted the same.
It quickly became apparent that sticking to the freshly made stations was the way to go, but just how many bowls of pasta with tomatoes and and onion can you have? By the end of the trip I was MacGyvering feverishly to get through meals, finding cheese and sausage and feverishly mixing it with the pasta and some salt (brought from home) to get more flavour or getting a second plate and mixing ingredients to something different and palatable. From talking to my mother as well as other people while outside the resort I gather some other hotels aren’t quite as dire in terms of variety/quantity but the pervasive blandness seems to be universal. I have to say, that’s one thing they’re really going to have to work on once the Americans start coming, even for a lower market American crowd you’re not going to be able to serve a tray of ‘pork’ like the one I saw everyone ignoring my last day there. We slightly alleviated things by grabbing the occasional meal in Varadero proper. Well, that and copious amounts of alcohol.
To be continued