We stayed at the Ocean Vista Azul, which is rated 5 stars by the Cuban government, and also the newest resort in the Varadero area. Before going into detail, I want to state that I did not book this hotel just because this is 5 stars and I have so much money. Many advices noted that you’ll have to subtract a star or two from the Cuban hotel rating because of their economy and infrastructure. Usually, I go for 2.5-3.5 star rating when I’m traveling. The lobby looked fine – actually, more than fine.
The front receptionist gave us a booklet with resort information. I don’t do what or why, but it looked a bit…unorganized or cheap. While waiting for the room to be made, my mom wanted to have a cup of mojito. Yes! Mojito! From Cuba!
Mom: One mojito please.
Bartender: I can’t make mojito now.
Mom: …? What? Why?
Bartender: No mint.
Let’s recap. This is 5 star resort in Cuba, the land of mojito, but the bartender can’t make mojito because there’s no mint today. So she switched to lemonade, and the Bartender just put the lemon juice powder and put it in the blender with ice. Uh…uh…yeah.
The room was made so we went up. The bell boy was kind and friendly, and of course the Gangnam style was mentioned. Yeah, thanks, Psy.
The room. Yeah, it looks fine, but….
The room wasn’t bad. Actually, it was more neat than we thought. But as time goes, we realized many of the details weren’t so 5 stars. 5 star hotel means that the hotel offers every possible small luxuries to its guests. For instance, instead of clean, simple and nice bedsheets, 5 starts offer clean, simple, nice bedsheets made of superb Egyptian cotton. The toiletries would be of Hermes, Dior, or something in that level. The complementary tea and cups would be something like Wedgewood. That’s not the case in Cuban 5 stars.
From left: 2 pillows in one big pillowcase. Use your imagination to use this.
The fridge case (?) had a huge gap underneath, so unless you open the fridge like you are handling Baccarat crystal, the fridge falls into the gap and you’ll have to struggle to put it back, taking forever.
The tiles started to fall off toward the end of our stay.
The curtains were made of nylon, with a string to pull the curtain. Yup, string. There was no sheet for blanket. There were cups, but no complementary teas. No Kleenex, notepad, and pen. There was no brand/explanation for the complementary soaps and body toiletries. Only then I started to understand why so many travelers said I have to subtract a star or more from the Cuban hotel rating. Few days later, the glues between the tiles started to fall off.
I wasn’t upset. I somewhat expected this, as my passport country borders with North Korea and I did my research before flying to Cuba. But still, there is a difference between what you know as information and what you actually experience. This was one of that moment. For me, it was just an amazement.
Printed on a piece of….paper. Literally.
Next day, we met with our tour representative at the lobby. She offered us a booklet for tours and contact information. The booklet was a simple folded paper, printed with a color printer for PC. When I visited other Caribbean countries, their tour info was properly printed on a clean, hard, glossy paper. Anyhow, we decided to go for Havana day trip and Three Cities (Santa Clara, Trinidad and Cienfuegos). We tried to pay with card, almost forgetting that the transaction between Cuba and US does not work, even with the newly revived Cuban-US relation!
Me: Uh…perhaps this one? (Hands my Wells Fargo card).
Rep: Is this US card? This won’t work.
Me: How about this one? This isn’t an American card. (Hands my AMEX card, issued by Korean company)
Rep: (looks at the card) Well, it says AMEX here so I don’t know…
Denied, even if it’s issued in Korea.
Me: Alright, let’s try this one (Hands my MasterCard, issued by Korean company and bank).
Worked. Thanks, BC card.
This wasn’t the end. Later in the evening, we went to the a la carte restaurant in the resort. There was no cloth napkin. Each person gets one paper napkin. The flower on the table was made out of paper towel with glitters. The cleaning ladies would not give additional toiletries unless we used up what was given, or call and ask for it. The towels were way too new, so once you wipe your body, you are covered in white fabrics.
The buffet food wasn’t so bad, but compared to other Caribbean resorts, this was not 5 stars. I saw a bit too much recycling of foods, or same menus repeating for the whole week. The vegetables were cucumber, beet, carrot and cabbage. No leafy veggies. Occasionally, there was cooked zucchini or pumpkin. But, by Cuban standard, this was 5 stars. I realized this after eating at the local restaurant during the tour.
The service was different, too. My guess is that people are not familiar on what to do in service industry, since this is a communist country. However, some were quick and they knew what they need to do to get more tips. For them, we tipped. The bar drinks weren’t that great, so we didn’t go to bar as much as we did in Jamaica or Dominican Republic. Coffee was good, though (obviously).
So, like Cuba, the resort was full of paradox. In the cafeteria, you can find Spanish wine, German yogurt, European cheese. Ice cream and pastries were actually good. But you can’t find enough paper towel and shampoo. For people who grew up in a developed, industrial, capitalist countries, this is something really hard to understand unless you experience it.
The similar things happened in Varadero airport departures. In other countries that heavily depend on tourism, the salesperson will greet you and say “let me know if you need anything.” In Varadero airport, no one really cared even as we looked around. Salespeople were simply reading books, knitting (!) or go way over to another store and chatted with another salesperson with a coffee. Basically, “I don’t care, I still get my paycheck and I don’t get any incentive from selling stuff to you” attitude. I don’t mean they were rude. More on this later.
The People’s Coke and Fanta. They actually taste very good!