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Last summer, my boyfriend, 3 kids, and I enjoyed an all-inclusive beach vacation in Cuba after a long (and grueling) school year. We really needed a trip with NO agenda, non-stop tourist attractions, or pressure to see as much as we could – just sunshine and ocean!
Because of the kids’ other summer plans, our travel dates weren’t very flexible, and I had trouble getting award flights and hotels in the Caribbean to line up with our schedule. If you’ve ever found yourself in that situation, don’t despair! There are ways to book paid travel with flexible points and no blackout dates – even vacation packages.
In this series, I’ll share how I booked the trip and our flight and hotel experiences. And give you tips about traveling to Cuba, especially with kids!
A Family Vacation to Cuba Trip Report Index
- Part 1 – Introduction and Planning
- Part 2 – Sunwing Flights to Holguin
- Part 3 – Memories Holguin Beach Resort
- Part 4 – Adventures Outside the Resort
Activities in Holguin
Usually when we travel, I schedule jam-packed days of touring around and trying to fit in as many sights and activities as possible. But this trip was all about relaxation!
So I wasn’t terribly concerned about spending a lot of time off the resort. There aren’t a lot of non-touristy activities near the hotel, and the closest major town, Guardalavaca, isn’t a big cultural or historical center.
There were activities we could book through the hotel or our tour operator, like horseback riding or a dolphin show. These were surprisingly expensive and the kids had almost zero interest in hopping on a tour bus or spending the day away from their new friends at the resort. But we did manage to get off the property a couple of times.
Dinner at La Maison
We wanted to get out at least once to enjoy some fresh seafood and local cuisine. TripAdvisor reviewers have rated La Maison Restaurant the #1 spot in Guardalavaca, so we asked the hotel front desk to arrange for a taxi to take us there for dinner one evening.
La Maison is located on a hill overlooking the beach and a bunch of resorts, in a somewhat rural residential area. The view is spectacular! You can see some of the big resorts in the distance.
The drive up was pretty bumpy, but how cool was it to ride in 1952 Chevy? We were impressed with how clean and well maintained it was, and the kids got a real kick out of riding in what they called an “old-timey” car. 🙂
The restaurant itself has an open air seating area and bar. It wasn’t busy when we arrived, and the only other patrons were local folks and a large family having a celebration. We were the only tourists there.
The menu was surprisingly extensive, with local style dishes and plenty of seafood options. Some folks on TripAdvisor complain this restaurant is expensive by Cuban standards (and undoubtedly there’s a different menu for locals). But compared to prices back home we thought it was decent value, especially for seafood.
Note: The Cuban Convertible Peso, which tourists use, is pegged to the US dollar. So 1 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) = $1.
For appetizers we got shrimp cocktails ($3!) and fried cheese balls ($1) which were a huge hit with the kids.
While waiting for our lobster entrees, we were treated to a magnificent sunset.
Each meal came with plantain chips, a mixed vegetable salad (tomato, cucumber, peppers, and carrots), and a choice of white rice or rice and beans. And the lobster was fantastic! Caribbean lobsters don’t have claws, and these tails were impressive and delicious. You could tell it was very fresh – apparently these are caught locally.
In total, our meal for the 5 of us came to ~$91, which included appetizers, sodas for the kids, and a couple of glasses of wine each for the grown-ups. Not bad for a lobster dinner!
Just as the meal was winding down, our driver returned to take us back to the hotel. We mentioned that some time during the trip, we wanted to go for another outing, so he gave us his phone number and we were able to reach him to take us into town again.
Guardalavaca Flea Market
We were hoping to do a little shopping for souvenirs and Cuban products, so we gave the same guy a call later in the week. He picked us up in his buddy’s taxi because his car was in for repair.
It was a little squishy in the backseat between me and the kids. But they loved the ride!
On the way to the market there were some nice views of the ocean, including this harbor our driver said was used by a lot of fishing boats. They must have all been out for the day.
Our first stop was a flea market in Guardalavaca where we picked up trinkets and jewelry. The kids bought a few items to give their friends back home, like keychains and necklaces. The market seemed geared to tourists so I’m pretty sure the prices were jacked up compared to what a local would pay, but in any case everything was still quite cheap.
Some of the vendors were a little pushy (like any tourist market) but the kids came away with some good deals.
Lunch at La Uva
After our shopping adventure, it was time to grab a bite to eat. Our driver recommended La Uva, a family-run restaurant with open air seating in the garden of a Cuban home. I got the impression the driver knew the owners, so perhaps he got a kickback for taking us there.
It’s also within walking distance to a couple of big resorts, so the prices were higher than what we’d experienced at La Maison. But again, compared to what we’d pay back home for similar items, we thought it was reasonable.
Similar to the other restaurant, entrees came with plantain chips, fresh salad, and rice. We ended up splitting 2 orders of grilled lobster ($20 each) …
… along with 2 “small” orders of garlic shrimp ($10 a piece). The shrimp was knock-your-socks-off garlicky – really delicious!
All told, the meal cost us ~$81 including sodas and quite a few cold Cristal beers. Not a cheap lunch, but totally worth it for the massive lobster and shrimp. We couldn’t finish everything, so packed up the leftovers and ended up giving them to our driver.
Donating Children’s Sporting Goods, School Supplies, and Clothing
We’d heard from friends who’d visited Cuba that sporting goods and school supplies were sometimes hard to come by there. Because we each had a free checked bag with Sunwing Airlines, we ended up filling 2 huge suitcases with the kids’ outgrown cleats, baseball gloves, soccer balls, and the like. And we brought some of their gently-used name-brand clothing, new school supplies, and a ton of American candy and chocolate.
I’d read online that it might be possible in some areas to donate such items to a local church or school, but after asking around the resort, none of the employees knew of anywhere that would accept walk-in donations. And reports online advised against just randomly handing out items at a school or to strangers.
So we asked our driver if he knew of anywhere. He said he could take us to a church, but cautioned us that he’d heard sometimes the churches would take the items and turn them around to sell on the black market. Instead, he suggested he knew a couple of very poor families with children in his neighborhood who could use the items.
We stopped at the home of one family – and yes, they were incredibly poor (you can see the house in the background of the photo below). Unfortunately, nobody was home.
Undeterred, the driver suggested we go to his house. He had a daughter around my son’s age and said she’d probably like a few of the items. And he said there were a few nearby neighbors with young kids who could really use some of the sporting gear. I figured giving the stuff directly to kids was the best angle at this point, so off we went.
We arrived at his house and he introduced us to his family and took us on a tour of his property. You could tell they didn’t have a lot – the house was very basic and run-down, but he proudly showed us his plot of corn, vegetables, and tropical fruits. He also had a couple of pigs he was raising in the backyard (I got the impression they were being fattened up for a special occasion).
It was mealtime for the pigs, so my son even got to feed them (with a bit of help).
In the meantime, our driver sent his young daughter to round up some of the neighborhood kids. At first they were a little confused about why she’d called them over.
But their confusion turned to smiles once we brought out all the sporting equipment and clothing. They were especially excited for the new soccer balls.
And my son gave them some of his outgrown baseball gear.
We also gave them school supplies and a ton of candy (THAT was a hit). I think some of the kids were still super puzzled by why they were getting all this stuff.
It felt good knowing the gear was going directly to children instead of just handing it off randomly to an organization. And my kids were pleased that other children would get good use from the stuff they’d outgrown.
The young daughter made friends with my kids and invited them inside so they could see her very own bedroom. I guess it’s not common in many families for a child to have a room all to themselves. She was very proud of having her own space.
My kids later commented with concern that there were no proper windows and large cracks in the walls. It made for good discussion about how fortunate we are and how folks in developing countries have it much harder than we do.
Meanwhile, our driver made us (very good) Cuban coffee and took us on a tour of a new house he was building for his family on the property. He remarked that it had been a slow go, in part because it was sometimes hard to get the materials he needed, and some were quite expensive.
The new home is a lot more sturdy and made of brick and concrete. He was hopeful he’d be able to finish it within the year, depending on how well his taxi business did.
We ended up having a good, long conversation about how life was in Cuba. He expressed hope that there were changes coming that would make the average Cuban’s life easier, and we talked a lot about how the US embargo had affected them (and what renewed travel restrictions for US citizens, which weren’t in place at the time, would mean to the tourism industry there). I got the impression that because tourism had relied on European, Canadian, and South American visitors for so long already, the new US travel restrictions really wouldn’t have much impact on the current situation.
Here’s another interesting fact he shared: In tourist areas like this, many of the folks working on the resorts have professional degrees, like engineers and nurses. They take jobs at the hotels instead because they can make a lot more money from tips than they would working for a government salary in their original profession.
It was real insightful to sit down and learn more about what real life is like there. But most importantly, it was an opportunity to share a little of our good fortune and impress upon the kids that they are truly lucky. Not just because they get to travel, but also that they are safe, have a warm house, food in their belly, and access to opportunities many don’t get. The kids still talk about our visit.
It was fun (and eye-opening) to get off the resort and ride around in vintage taxis. We enjoyed delicious, fresh seafood (including massive lobster tails) at restaurants La Maison and La Uva in Guardalavaca, a small town near our hotel. And the kids got to shop for souvenirs at a local market.
But the most memorable part of our time off the resort was getting to meet a local family and neighborhood children. We’d brought a couple of suitcases full of the kids’ gently used sporting gear, clothing, and new school supplies and were able to donate them to folks who could really use it.
Learning about how others live and realizing just how fortunate they are made a big impression on the kids.
If you’re ever booking a package resort stay (anywhere), remember you can use miles from cards like the Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card or Barclaycard Arrival® Plus World Elite Mastercard® to erase most travel purchases. But keep in mind US credit cards are NOT accepted in Cuba, so you’ll need cash (or a credit card from another country) for anything you buy. Most local businesses are cash only anyway.
In the next (and last) post of the series, I’ll share how our 7-night vacation accidentally turned into 8 nights!