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Free drinks! — that’s what immediately pops into my mind whenever someone starts talking to me about all-inclusive resorts. It’s not really my style of vacation, some people say it’s the only way to go.
On a recent trip to Cuba, I decided to see what all the fuss is about. Europeans, Latin Americans and Canadians flock to Varadero’s all-inclusive resorts to enjoy relaxing beach vacations — and Americans too, thanks to American Airlines’ new nonstop twice-daily flights from Miami to Matanzas (VRA), the closest airport to Varadero. And this time, I would join them.
In an effort to help you decide if this type of vacation is right for you — especially if it’s going to be your first time in Cuba — here’s a handy list of pros and cons to consider before you book.
Pro: All-Inclusive Resorts Can be a Real Bargain
Of the many, many all-inclusive options in this part of Cuba, I chose to stay at the Iberostar Tainos Resort. I booked a two-night stay for myself in a double room for $232, an absolute steal considering all my accommodations, meals, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and use of all hotel amenities, including the pool, fitness center and beach activities, would be covered. If you’re traveling on a budget, $116 per night for a hotel, resort-style amenities and three meals per day is a great deal.
Con: You’re Wearing a Wristband 24/7
So, you’ve checked in, gotten your room key and are ready to hit the resort. Don’t forget to put on your wristband — it’s the only thing that lets staff know you’re here as an all-inclusive guest and the only way to ensure you’re getting all the perks you paid for.
Pro: You’re Right on the Beach
Varadero is one of the most stunning, pristine beaches I’ve ever been to and the resorts work really hard to keep the area and welcoming for guests. However, relaxing on the beach or at the pool are really the go-to attractions here, so if you aren’t into the sun, this whole thing probably isn’t for you.
Con: The Entertainment Options Might Seem Cheesy if You’re Not With Kids
The evenings at the various hotel bars here aren’t really the ideal spot for meeting young professionals or chatting with new friends. Prepare for early nights as the child-focused theater skits (featuring resort employees clad in creepy costumes and tacky cruise ship-style entertainment) are over and done by 9 pm. The lobby area, on the other hand, had plenty of seating with its own bar, and in the evenings you can hang out there to use the internet — because Cuban Wi-Fi is so limited, you’ll need to purchase an ETESCA card beforehand, which will give you one hour’s worth for 2 CUC (~$2).
Pro: You’ll Have Access to Tons of Amenities
The resort seemed quite large, with many bungalows, restaurant areas, plenty of manicured grounds, a fitness center, tennis courts, basketball courts, a huge pool and tanning area and a small tree-lined walk down to the resort’s private beach.
Con: The Accommodations are OK, But Nothing Spectacular
I’d heard that many of the resorts in Varadero seem a bit tired, since Cuba isn’t typically able to get small items like bathroom fixtures to help keep the properties sleek and modern. This one seemed relatively up-to-date and I had access to all the essentials.
While the bedroom was pretty outdated, the bathroom was nice and large, and featured a rainfall shower.
My room even had a small balcony with a table and chairs. While nothing particularly special, the room was just fine: clean, bright and definitely worth the price I paid for it.
Pro: It’s an Ideal Option for Families
Many resorts offer family-friendly entertainment and activities that make it easy for children and adults of all ages to have a great time. The room I stayed in was nice and big, too, fit for three — or perhaps even six — and came with three beds. There was complimentary water and beer in the mini-fridge.
Con: There Are Many Other Visitors With You
You are going to be stuck with a whole lot of people. And you’ll see them over and over again: at the beach, at meals and at the pool. Expect the pool to be packed with kids and families — I chose to hang by the beach instead, where it was a bit more peaceful.
Pro: If You Really Want to Escape the Resort, You Can
If you’re staying here for a week, you may get tired of constantly having the same food, being on the same beach and always bumping into the same people. Luckily, the nearby town of Varadero has plenty of its own restaurants and activities, which you can reach by taxi or by renting a car or motorcycle for the day. Varadero is a 30-minute drive from the airport in Matanzas (VRA) and about a 2.5-hour drive from Havana if you’re considering adding more Cuba travel to your plans before or after your time at the resort.
Con: Meal Times Can be Crowded (But the Staff Are Phenomenal)
The buffet can be hellish at mealtimes, with people pushing and shoving to get to the food. To avoid mealtime rush hour, I ended up heading to the main dining area a little later than most guests, around 9:00-10:00am for breakfast, 2:00-3:00pm for lunch and 9:00pm for dinner. My plan worked and it was much less crowded.
Thankfully, the staff during busy mealtimes make up for all the pushy hotel guests — they seem to ignore all the annoying people and go out of their way to serve drinks and chat with guests who are behaving normally, which helped.
Meals were interesting, mostly because I found that the people in my resort were, well, rather rude — if I had a dollar for every person who pushed me around in the buffet line, shoving to the front to get a fresh portion of french fries! If you can get past all the annoying guests who think “all-inclusive” means they can have everything first, the meals aren’t half bad.
There was a fairly large selection of items at the buffet, like fruit, salad, meat, fish, pizza and pasta, among other options. There were many desserts available at lunch and dinner, as well as an omelette station at breakfast.
You can catch a glimpse of the chefs grilling fresh meat and fish.
The staff walked around offering beer and wine and there was a machine where you could fill up your own soft drinks. I will say that after two days of eating the same foods, you get a bit tired of things. I can’t imagine staying there for a week and eating the same thing over and over again.
There were also two other restaurants onsite besides the buffet: the Grill and an Asian restaurant. Both days, I attempted to get a reservation there but by 10:00am, each was completely full. The Asian restaurant seemed to be closed by 8:00pm, too, which I thought was a bit strange — I have a sneaking suspicion that busy resorts like this encourage guests to eat at the buffet and make it complicated for them to reserve meals elsewhere.
Con: It’s Not a Good Way to Interact With the Cuban Culture
There just wasn’t anything about this property that screamed “Cuba” to me, which is why I typically avoid all-inclusive resorts in the first place — I mean, what’s the point of going all the way to Cuba if it doesn’t even feel like you’re in Cuba?
I tried to interact with the Cuban staff as much as possible, since they were extremely friendly and always had smiles on their faces, especially during mealtimes. The people I spoke to loved to joke around and chat with the guests. When all is said and done, you’ll hear plenty of German, French and Portuguese, but you won’t really be getting a feel for how the Cuban people live by staying in a place like this.
After a relaxing two days, I realized I had really enjoyed myself — but i was definitely ready to head out and experience something different. I do love chilling out on the beach, but was starting to miss the excitement of stumbling across a fabulous hole-in-the-wall local restaurant and or happening upon a funky beach bar that turns into long, crazy night of adventure. 7:00pm Salsa dancing at the resort wasn’t quite what I’d consider nightlife and I was ready for a little more adventure, something to make me feel like I was, indeed, in Cuba.
If you really want to escape it all and you don’t want to think about planning your own meals, organizing your own activities or figuring out how to get around the island, an all-inclusive resort getaway in Cuba could be perfect for you. If you are traveling as a couple — honeymooners can opt for an adults-only resort where everyone is over 21 — or as a family with small children, it could also be ideal.
But if this is your first trip to Cuba and you’re looking to immerse yourself in the culture or go exploring, this is definitely not a good way to go about it. That being said, it might make a nice beach break for a few nights as part of a longer trip or a nice overnight stop as you’re making your way between busy Havana and other Cuban cities. If you do plan to stay at an all-inclusive, always read through the reviews on TripAdvisor first to get a better idea of what to expect and make sure to choose one that fits your style of travel so you’ll end up having a great trip.
Would you ever stay at an all-inclusive resort in Cuba?
Featured image and all photos courtesy of Darrel Hunter.
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