Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Our first trip to the Club Amigo took place exactly 2 years ago and now we were going to visit this hotel for the second time (and Cuba for the ninth time). We left Toronto on January 4, 2015 on a Can Jet flight, getting, for the first time, front row seats (well, my client happened to work at the check-in counter and I have to thank her for this extra perk!). This allowed us to chat with flight attendants-and stretch our legs! Incidentally, we got the same seats on our way back and even met the same flight attendant. The flight took less than 4 hours and we arrived in Cuba on time after 9:00 pm. Once we cleared the customs, I proceeded to the departure area to exchange money (no queue!). There was a guy selling cold beer, 2 cans for 5 CUCs — I figured out that instead I could buy it for just 1 CUC at the bar in the departure building or the kiosk in front of the airport, but unfortunately, both of them had run out of beer (or the beer vendor had bribed them to put it away so that he did not have any competition!). Our bus had a built in cooler which carried cans of Cristal beer — for sale by our tour rep. There were a few takers, but I preferred Bucanero.

We arrived at the hotel before midnight. Several weeks earlier I had contacted the hotel via email, asking for a specific room in the Villa section. Lo and behold, we got room number 8213, the same we had two years ago!


The resort had not changed much since our last visit. It was clean and we saw a few familiar faces. However, we immediately noticed that there were much more tourists than two years ago. Almost every day the lobby was teeming with people (and their numerous pieces of luggage) waiting for the bus to the airport and it was often quite a challenge to walk across the lobby, we had to maneuver among all the waiting tourists and their suitcases and backpacks. The store in the lobby had mineral water, beer, rum, liqueurs and souvenirs, but due to a water leak it was closed at the end of our stay-when I needed it the most!
View from our room
The beach between the Amigo and Brisas was just a two minute walk from our Villa and we stayed on it every day. However, it was quite difficult to find a beach chair as it was crowded. And we were always able to sneak into the Brisas’ restaurant to get beer! Security guards were posted everywhere, some spoke passable English and were quite eager to practice it — after all, it must be a very boring job! Catherine managed to act like she had a villa at the Brisas and toured the entire property one afternoon while I went to the market.
Hotel Amigo Guardalavaca as seen from a nearby village

There were several horse-drawn buggies around the hotel and their drivers/owners incessantly kept offering us sightseeing rides or to private homes serving lobster dinners. One of them was telling us that in addition to his buggy, he also ran a casa particular and was involved in selling souvenirs to tourists.

Usted es un capitalista”, I said.

Smiling, he replied in broken English, “Si senor, people in Cuba capitalists now”.

So, donde estan los communistas?”, I asked him?

He only burst out laughing.

Adjacent to the main hotel building was a market where Cubans sold plenty of craft, carvings, hats, leather belts, toys and other stuff. I bought several leather belts, but it would be possible to find some original Cuban souvenirs.


On Tuesday evening, while in the lobby of the main building, I heard very nice piano music, so I followed its sound and ended up in a bar on the second floor called “Ashley Café.” It was named after a Canadian girl, Ashley Anna Schlag (March 12, 1995-August 28, 2012, According to a commemorative inscription on the cafe's wall, “Ashley was full of life, greeting everyone with her amusing smile and making friends wherever she went. She enjoyed spending time with her family and many close friends at Club Amigo, the place she called her 'home'”. Sadly, she died in a car accident in Canada over 2 years ago. What a terrible tragedy! And as I was writing this review, I suddenly realized she would have been celebrating her 20th birthday today…
Ashley Cafe

There was an old piano at the café and a Cuban lady was playing various well-known music pieces, some from famous musicals or movies. We spent over one hour in the bar, enjoying her performance. Since she was going to play again on Friday, we went to the bar immediately after dinner and sat there, enchanted by the piano music. We had brought from Canada a box of delicious Belgian chocolates “Godiva” and I was happy to present them to the pianist in appreciation for her wonderful performance! There was also a different piano player each night in the aforementioned location and Catherine enjoyed his music too. Catherine did complain about the use of the energy saving lights used throughout the entire building which cast a glaring romantic-less light.


For the first few days we had our breakfast at the a ‘la carte Benny More Restaurant. As always, I had yogurt (unless they ran out of it, which happened most of the time), fruit plate and eggs. Unfortunately, not only did it take very long for the staff to take our orders and bring food, but there were also line-ups to get to the restaurant. 
Enjoying our meals

The only good thing was that while queuing up, we struck up a conversation with a very nice couple from Toronto, with whom we subsequently had a few other meals at the hotel and enjoyed stimulating conversations. On the third day we went over to the 24 hour bar just across from the Benny More Restaurant (which served breakfast in the morning), but we were quite disappointed in the level of service too. One day we waited for over 30 minutes before the server showed up; a Cuban family that had come before us was treated exactly the same way and eventually the husband stood up, said ‘vamos’ and they left. Another day we even went to the breakfast buffet in the restaurant upstairs in the main hotel building (Las Acadas, I guess) — but there were so many people lining-up outside the door that we immediately left and just skipped breakfast.
A'la carte dinner

For dinner we invariably went to the “1720” restaurant (in the bungalow section). Again, we had to line-up for a while to get in, the place was full — from then on we were arriving very early in order to avoid queuing. The food was very good and varied, we had a few glasses of passable red wine and there was a lady preparing mixed salads which I loved! We had one a ’la carte dinner in the dining room adjacent to this restaurant. It was good, yet we still went to the main restaurant to get the salad.
Piano player at the Ashley Cafe
The 24 hour bar served quite good food and drinks. Again, it was often jam-packed with tourists and it often took a while to get a drink. Since I did not like such drinks-I found them too sweet- I only had cold beer; a big bubba mug came very handy! Catherine stuck to the occasional red wine which was decent.


There were many bikes, free to tourists, and we took advantage of this great deal. Several times we rode to the apartment building complex across from the hotel. Just behind the apartments, up a rutted dirt road, we saw a farmhouse and the family invited us in. We talked for a while and took several photos of them. Later we had the photos developed and delivered them to the family. We also rode to another house nearby and spoke to the farmer who showed us around his garden, full of various trees and plants. We also rode past the Brisas, over the bridge, until we reached a dilapidated and half-destroyed monument. We were told it was dedicated to the Cuban Revolution… how ironic!
Cuban family living in a village just across from the hotel
Of course, we also took the tourist bus that first went to the Museo Chorro de Maita and a 15th century Arawakan Indian village. We immediately proceeded up the rural road and soon struck up a conversation with a very nice Cuban woman who invited us to her house. Her kids were in school and seemed to be rather lonely. The view from the place was amazing-we could see the ocean and a few massive ships. She cut sugar cane which we slowly chewed, it was delicious! 
Cutting sugar cane

Next we visited a fellow and his family whom we had met two years ago. Unfortunately, he had not received any of the photos I had sent him. His mother gave us black & sweet coffee. I left some gifts — this time I brought a bunch of brand new shirts, with price tags of $39.99 still attached-it was a great idea as Cubans loved them-I managed to get them for a tiny fraction of the retail price and they were of superior quality. Catherine did not have any gifts, so she gave a generous cash donation to the mother plus the bag she was carrying to the married daughter. She was a little taken back when the daughter asked for cash too, but she figured if she were in their position she would have also asked for money. Then the bus took us to other resorts and back to the hotel-at least we got a feel what the other hotels looked like.
Cuban woman


It was the same room we had in 2013 (#8213) and nothing has changed since then: we had hot water, small fridge kept our drinks cool, TV had a lot of channels and we could watch Canadian and international news: it was during our stay the terrorist attacks took place in France ('Je suis Charlie'), so we actually did watch TV! The room also had a spacious balcony facing the ocean where we spent a lot of time. We did not spot one insect in the room. The maids did an excellent job keeping our rooms clean and tidy.
Hotel propaganda

One night, around midnight, while we were already in bed, there was a lot of screaming and commotion outside our room, we even heard somebody calling for help (in English). It went on for about 5 minutes and we called security. Supposedly somebody had fallen and also had some heart problems… but we thought there was much more to this story than we were told. Catherine talked to the 20 person extended Canadian family the next day, almost expecting an apology, when suddenly another crisis occurred and one of the inebriated uncles was 'stuck' in the bath tub. Luckily they seemed to move out soon afterwards. It seemed that both incidences were alcohol related.
Cacti at the hotel

The last day we paid extra 20 CUCs so that we could stay in our room after the noon check-out time and our room cards (a.k.a. keys) were supposedly updated accordingly. As we were packing, we suddenly encountered a big problem: the magnetic cards failed to open the safe (where we kept our passports, money and jewellery… just kidding, only cameras!), even though we were assured they would be working. We called the reception and were told to bring the cards. Catherine walked all the way to the lobby and managed to talk to a hotel employee, which was not easy, as there were plenty of people lining up. She got the magnetic cards updated… but then not only were we unable to open the safe, but the cards would not even open the door! We called the lobby again and were told that somebody would come to help us. We waited and waited, called twice more and eventually one guy appeared with a special device that opened the safe. Whew, it was a close call, as our bus was leaving for the airport in less than an hour.
Colon beach, where we had spent a lot of time the previous year

Two years ago, while we were about to leave and take our luggage to the hotel, we were told that somebody would come and drive us to the lobby, but despite a phone call or two, nobody showed up and we had to do ourselves. So, this time we did not even bother calling asking for such service and simply dragged our suitcases to the main building.


Although according to TripAdvisor’s forums Banes was not a very interesting town, we still wanted to go there. We took a taxi from the hotel and when we were dropped off near the main square, an English speaking Cuban guy approached us. 
Our Cuban guide
We started talking and eventually he became our guide. He claimed to be an ex- boxer who had visited the USA semi professionally and he seemed to be in good shape for his 60+ years. His English was very good too and it turned out to be a pleasant experience, well worth the 10 CUC he politely requested so he could buy a pair of shoes he had been saving for several months. We also gave him a shirt, which he appreciated very much.
At this church Fidel Castro married his first wife in 1948. He received a gift of $500 from Fulgencio Batista

He took us to the church of Nuestra Señora de la Caridad and even got the custodian to open it for us. It was in this church that on October 11, 1948 Fidel Castro married his first wife, Birta Díaz Balart (and divorced her in 1955). Her father was a prominent Cuban politician and mayor of the town of Banes. We had a photo taken at the altar, exactly where the future leader of Cuba was solemnizing his marriage over 66 years ago. Ironically, Cuban president Fulgencio Batista was born in Banes in 1901 and he gave the newlyweds US$500 gift for their honeymoon. Incidentally, Castro’s first wife is still alive; she is the aunt of anti-Castro Republican Party U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and his brother, former U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Public transport in Banes

Later our guide showed us a house where Castro’s wife used to live, took us to a few parks and we had a great time. He told us that the house where Fulgencio Batista was born still existed (to the contrary of what I had read), but we never got to see it. Since we had some Cuban peso (i.e., Moneda National), we were able to buy a lot of excellent freshly squeezed juices and sugar cane drinks for just 1 peso (or about 4-5 cents) and some pastries for a similar amount.
Private shop

We visited an archaeological museum which had artifacts from 7000 years ago, of the Siboney Indians, and 1000 years ago, of the Taino Indians. We also saw the world-famous pre-Columbian pure gold idol.
Street scene

Granted, it would be difficult to compare Banes’ architecture and atmosphere with that of, say, Holguin, Camaguey or Trinidad, but we enjoyed our trip very much and even wished we could have stayed longer than 3 hours. Besides, I had a chance to see the hospital in Banes, where my mother had been taken in 1993 or so after falling in the hotel and breaking her knee; at that time, Cuba was a very different country, plunged in a deep recession brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the village across from the hotel Amigo Guardalavaca


The airport’s stores carried plenty of rums, vodkas, cigarettes and other stuff; as always, we made our final purchases there. The small airport suddenly became very busy: first, there was a big Italian jet just taking off, then three planes landed: one from Quebec City, one from Montreal and ours from Toronto — our plane’s take off was slightly delayed as another Air Canada jet from Toronto was landing — altogether there were 4 planes on the tarmac!
At the village across from the Hotel Amigo Guardalavaca


It was a good trip, but there were definitively too many tourists in the hotel which sort of spoiled the trip a little. It is a rather big hotel complex and the main lobby was way too small to handle all the travelers. Besides, there should be more restaurants and more servers — for example, many tables at the Benny More restaurant were not even set and there were only 2 servers who could not cope with so many people at breakfast. I do not think we should have had to line up every day or be forced to skip meals due to the number of tourists. The problems with the magnetic card was quite annoying too. Also the public beach in front of the Brisas had every lounge chair reserved by mid-morning which was unlike the situation 2 years ago. In fact, we just lay on the sand twice. By the way, a friend of mine travelled to the same hotel exactly one week later (on the same flight) and he also complained about the hotel being overcrowded and having to line-up restaurants. Because of that, I do not think we would be coming back to this resort. But we will certainly visit Cuba again — Cayo Largo, here we come!

More photos

No comments:

Post a Comment