It's another beautiful day in Varadero, Cuba, at the Playa Caleta all-inclusive resort. The hotel, a rectangular orange-and-blue monstrosity, looms above the beachfront, where throngs of foreigners try to enjoy a cheap vacation that requires precisely zero thought, effort, curiosity or participation.
Inside, at the bar, servers in white button-ups and black bow ties make infinity mojitos. Seriously, you can just keep consuming mojitos, at no extra cost, until the universe collapses back upon itself. There is a man sitting at the bar with a blue, plaid shirt and a long, skinny face. He looks stoic but is actually a seething ball of anxiety.
That man is me, wondering what I’m doing here.
Probably at this moment I am contemplating the concept of all-you-can-drink, or all-you-can-eat, or all-you-can-anything, for that matter. Humans are meant to face adversity, I’m thinking, to overcome challenges, to earn our luxuries. We often thrive when we are beset my limitations. When things are too easy, like right now, for example, we get sloppy.
How predictable it is to disparage the all-inclusive resort. Yet that’s what I’m doing. What is my problem anyway? As resorts are wont to be, this is not a wholly unpleasant place. The entrance atrium is an indoor jungle, which adds some always desirable feng shui. The rooms, comfy, aside from the lingering aroma of mould. The cleaning staff will sculpt your towel into a swan and leave it for you on the bed. Adorable.
But this is not how interesting people behave, I’m thinking. They understand that what is gained from an experience is directly proportional to what has been invested. They do not wait in line for bottomless soggy hamburgers at the cafeteria and then claim that Cuban food sucks. They have better things to do than visit the outdoor “theatre” to watch the resort’s staff members, seemingly exhausted, perform their rendition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show over and over again.
Everywhere you go, you’re welcomed with endless smiles, perpetual amicability. Nothing about this plastic experience is reflective of real life — and I suppose that’s the point. But as I sip my mojito (bereft of value, being unlimited), I realize that I am here, in an actual country, where actual people exist, with actual dreams and ideas about how to live actual life.
By this point my travel companion is no doubt losing patience with me at a rapid rate.
Entering full existential crisis mode, I make a decision to procure a two-wheeled vehicle for a journey to Havana. You know, the whole Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance thing. Sure, a moped is not a motorcycle, but close enough.
The moped man seems to think I’m being a tad ambitious, and perhaps I am for a typical all-inclusive guest. As it turns out, getting to Havana from Varadero is a picturesque but not-very-long road trip along the Via Blanca highway, passing through the small town of Matanzas and cruising along the Straits of Florida coastline. You know you’re close when the traffic reaches claustrophobic levels of intensity.
I’m aware that there is an irony to this situation. In the hopes of having a more interesting experience, I’m doing a classically predictable thing by stressing about and consequently fleeing the confines of a resort. But – the anxiety was on to something. As I’m about to learn, taking a step away from the paint-by-numbers experience is actually amazing.
It starts with a man at the side of the road. The man has a cart, and there is a an entire roasted pig on it. What the man is doing with the pig is chopping off pieces of it, putting it onto white bread and sprinkling it with salt. My companion, who is smooshed behind me on the moped, and I stop to eat. Someone — everyone, actually — had told me to prepare for terrible food in Cuba, but not a single one of those people tasted this man’s delicious sandwich, that I know.
Then, we’re in Havana. It is a town of miraculous beauty. There is magic hanging about, an alchemy of architecture — baroque, neoclassical, art deco — sea air and music wafting out from patios across the city. In the best way possible, Havana seems part of a bygone era, an effect enhanced by the presence of classic American cars everywhere you look.
There is realness here: the facades of the buildings are mottled and coated in derelict charm. Some people are sketchy, which makes you appreciate the helpful ones all the more. One might wonder whether Cuba is safe — the answer is, of course it is. Cuba is a police state, and cops are everywhere.
Along the waterfront, the Malecón, city dwellers gather to socialize, play music or go fishing. It is not exactly a raucous city —there’s an undeniable authoritarianism underneath everything — but it is a city with character. That night, we do a homestay with a local family, and they make us tea and breakfast in the morning.
Back at the resort, I feel better. I have proven to myself that I am a unique creation, a shooting star, capable of independent thought and exploration. Ego satisfied, I’m now able to just chill on the beach, content.
I understand why people go to resorts. They are fine. Just because something is easy doesn’t mean it’s bad. But when I think back on the trip, it’s not the mojitos I care about, or the swimming pool 15 feet away from the ocean, or the weird “French” restaurant on site. It’s that feeling of loving life again that comes from looking just a bit beyond what’s directly in front of you — which is what good travel should be about anyway.
Want to check out Cuba for yourself? G Adventures can get you there. Check out our small group tours to Cuba here.