Another autumn, and the ads for sun destinations begin to appear in my inbox. And inevitably, a lot of the best travel deals are for trips to Cuba. There are a lot of different vacation spots in Cuba, but if you’re looking for a place to get away from it all, one of the best is Cayo Coco.
Cayo Coco is one in a chain of long, skinny islands called the Jardines del Rey off Cuba’s north coast, and it’s basically one big resort. Aside from a string of all-inclusive beach hotels and big stretches of dense forest, there’s not much on the island.
And while it may look close to the mainland on the map, don’t be fooled: the only way to the rest of Cuba is over a 27-kilometre causeway that takes a good half-hour to traverse. The trip to the nearest city, Moron, can take close to an hour. And there’s no public transport except a hop-on-hop-off bus that will run you around the island all day for $5, so you won’t be taking the bus into town.
So when you go to Cayo Coco, you’re buying a week or two at one of the all-inclusive resorts that line its shores. You’ll eat, sleep, spend your days lounging on the beach or around the pool, and go to the stage shows and the disco at night. If you want to see the rest of Cuba, you book a day trip.
That means you had better like the resort you’ve chosen. And after reading a lot of bad reviews of Cuban hotels, I was a bit leery. But on the strength of lot of positive Tripadvisor reviews, I tried my luck with the Memories Caribe Beach Resort, and came up aces.
The Caribe is an attractive place, with a big, airy lobby that opens up to a little pond frequented by a tame flamingo. Nearby there’s a huge dining hall, a couple of good-sized pools and an open-air theatre where they hold the nightly shows. The rooms are situated in little housing blocks, like a subdivision, stretching down toward the beach.
My room was clean and modern, with a shower that had hot water some of the time and a television that even brought in a Canadian channel, though it was a bit snowy (it was from Canada, after all). And there was a balcony, which came in handy for sitting in the evening reading Hemingway and sipping the free bottle of rum they delivered on the second day (a nice surprise, considering the bargain price I paid for the week).
One of the reasons I chose Cayo Coco was to indulge my hobby of nature photography, and the grounds of this hotel were a paradise for bird lovers. On my first morning walk I almost tripped over something, and looked down to see this fellow — one of the great lizard cuckoos that patrolled the grounds all day, hunting for little critters in the forests and flower beds.
Once the sun got high, it was time to hit the beach, which was popular with the pale-skinned Canadians who filled the resort. And though I’m not a beach connoisseur, it was a good place to relax, with warm, shallow water so you could walk out a long way without having to swim.
My tour company, Sunwing, offered a number of day excursions, including snorkelling, jet skiing and scuba diving. But I wanted to do some real birding, and see some of the country at the same time. So I contacted a bird guide I’d found on the internet, and along with another Toronto couple, spent a full and fascinating day driving the countryside of Cuba.
We found some of Cuba’s most beautiful birds, and lots of them — an amazing 80 species in one day. Some were spectacular, like the Cuban trogon, and some were strange, like the scarlet-tinged roseate spoonbills. But the find of the day had to be this tiny but cute Cuban pygmy owl.
Along the way we also came across some of the oddities that make Cuba such a fascinating place, like the yellow-clad helpers (los amarillos) the government puts at major intersections to help people hitch rides, since few people can afford a car. And Turiguano, the Dutch-themed farming community supposedly inspired by Fidel Castro’s secretary.
On the way back, we visited Cayo Guillermo, at the western end of Cayo Coco, where there’s a marina that was one of Hemingway’s favourite fishing spots. But more than famous writers, the quay is famous as one of the few places you can see a flock of wild flamingos just being themselves.
Then back to the Memories Caribe, for more of the endless all-included food and free beer. And while Cuban food gets lukewarm reviews at best, the food at the resort was mostly enjoyable, and at times very good: I’d happily line up for the delicious Cuban roast pork and the oddly addictive rice-and-beans dish that graces dinner tables all over the island.
There’s lots more to see in Cuba, and I’ve seen more of it since Cayo Coco. But if I was in the mood for a carefree week with a little wildlife thrown in, I’d go back, with a few good books to occupy my beach time.
On that theme, it’s rumoured that Hemingway’s novel Islands in the Stream was set in the Jardines del Rey, so I took it along and dipped in on my trip. I liked the islands — the novel, not so much.