Recently a ThriftyTourist.ca reporter was in need of some cheap fun in the sun. She chose to take a week’s holiday in Cuba.
After scouring the Internet for the best vacation deals to Cuba, our reporter booked a one-week package at the four-star Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde resort, through Air Transat.
The cheap all-inclusive Cuban vacation package included flights; hotel accommodations; all meals; drinks; access to pools, fitness centre, tennis, volleyball, ping pong and air hockey; resort activities such as snorkeling, catamaran ride; and nightly shows; dance lessons; and language lessons. The resort also had nine restaurants and six bars.
The trip took place the week after the Canadian March Break vacation period and was booked from Sunday to Sunday. All in, the trip cost only $1,500 CDN (including $400 for spending money).
So was this cheap trip to Cuba a good deal? Our ThriftyTourist.ca reporter said, “Yes”. While it wasn’t a five-star, all-inclusive it had all the amenities she was looking for and was clean and comfortable. She went on to endorse it even further by confirming that she would go back to the Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde resort again.
Since she is a citizen of the greater Toronto area, our ThriftyTourist.ca reporter flew out of Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The flight to Cuba took four hours. Going through security at the Cuban airport was quick and once you did, an Air Transat representative was waiting to direct you to a coach bus which was the included transportation to the resort.
TIP: Before you board the bus, convert your cash to Cuban currency at the airport. Why? Because you’ll get a cheaper exchange rate at the airport than the resort. Unlike travelling to most other countries, you can’t exchange your Canadian funds for the Cuban currency at a Canadian bank or money exchange service. You can only do it when you arrive in Cuba.
The drive from the airport to the Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde resort was approximately one hour. The bus had air conditioning, a washroom and a tour guide on board who pointed out various sites along the way. The bus served multiple resorts so it made a few stops at other places before arriving at the Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde resort.
On your first day at the Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde resort plan to attend an information session run by an on-site Air Transat representative. This is well worth doing as the rep will take you through all the amenities that are available for free at the resort, as well as the affordable, off-the-resort excursions you can book through the Air Transat rep. An Air Transat rep is also available 24 hours a day to answer any vacation planning questions you may have and to book your package of excursions.
Snorkeling: Snorkeling is available for free right at the Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde all-inclusive resort in Cuba. The Air Transat rep recommends that you book your mask and snorkel (they’re free) upon arrival to ensure you have a set. However, in hindsight, our ThriftyTourist.ca reporter recommends that you bring your own. She found that the masks and snorkels provided by the hotel have been used so many times that they tended to fill with water.
Another reason to bring your own snorkeling gear is that you are only allowed to have the resort’s gear for one hour at a time.
The snorkeling takes place right in the resort’s beach area. There are lots of beautiful, colourful fish and, luckily, no stingrays to watch out for although you could step on a sea urchin if you are not careful.
Catamaran: The free catamaran ride is a lot of fun. You sign up at a hut on the beach. The “captain” meets you at the beach, you climb aboard and away you go. How fast depends on how strong the wind is. The ride lasts about 20 minutes.
Live Entertainment: Each night at the resort there’s complimentary, live entertainment. Every evening is different: a fashion show, singing and dancing, synchronized swimming, fire show, etc. Each show was well attended so if you want to guarantee yourself a seat make sure you arrive well before the show’s 9:00 PM start time.
TIP: If relaxing with a cold, alcoholic beverage throughout the day is a must while vacationing in Cuba, take a cue from veteran visitors and bring your own bubba drink mug. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself making multiple trips to the bar because like most all-inclusive resorts, this one serves their drinks in small plastic cups.
The off-the-resort activities can be booked through the Air Transat rep stationed at the Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde. These outings cost extra, approximately $80 CDN per person each, but are still quite affordable for someone traveling on a cheap budget.
Swimming with Dolphins: If paddling with a porpoise is on your bucket list, Cuba is a thrifty place to do it. At approximately $80 CDN per person it’s way less than the hundreds of dollars it costs to swim with the dolphins at Discovery Cove in Florida for example.
The dolphins live at an aquarium that’s located on an island. To get there you whisk across the ocean on a 50-person catamaran. There are complimentary snacks for the ride and if you’re feeling parched there’s a cash bar.
Once you are at the aquarium you get to spend about 20 minutes in the water, as part of a group, with the dolphins. TIP: When it’s picture time, hand your camera to the guide and he’ll take your picture for free. Otherwise the aquarium will charge $6.
This outing includes a lobster lunch with one drink. While you chow down, a band provides live music (although when they’re done, they’ll be expecting a tip).
For a few more dollars, you can add snorkeling to this excursion. Our ThriftyTourist.ca reporter opted to do this but in hindsight wouldn’t recommend it. The snorkeling was no better than the free snorkeling back at the resort. If she could do it again, she would have passed on the snorkeling and spent more time observing the dolphins.
Super Combo: this excursion is an opportunity to get a taste of Cuban life in a variety of ways. First stop is a sugar mill in Santa Lucia. Then it’s a short train ride through the Cuban countryside. Back on foot in Holguin, you visit Revolution Square and then a factory where world-famous Cuban cigars are produced. Lunchtime arrives and you stop to refuel and reflect at a restaurant close to the sea in Gibara. Afterwards you get to explore the village on your own. While it was cool to see the vintage cars, banks, streets and churches, there wasn’t a lot to do and our ThriftyTourist.ca reporter said she felt unsafe. A lot of people came up to her begging too. Overall our reporter felt the Super Combo excursion wasn’t very well organized and could have been better.
Green & Blue: if you’re up for some thrills and adventure, this outing will probably do the trick. It includes driving in a jeep convoy through town and then off road, horseback riding through the Cuban countryside, speed boating in a tranquil bay, visiting a farm and tasting the tropical fruits they grow, and lunch at a hotel. Our reporter felt this was the best off-site excursion and highly recommends it.
While visiting Cuba, tipping is encouraged. In most cases one to three pesos is considered the going rate. Everyone who assists you will be expecting a tip so be prepared to tip your bus driver, tour guide, waiter, waitress, etc. If you make a point of tipping your bartenders on the first day, they’ll remember you and will likely to put a dash more alcohol in your drinks.
Many people claim that the quality of the food at Cuban resorts isn’t on par with the faire served at resorts in other Caribbean destinations, describing the food as just okay or average. When asked about this, our ThriftyTourist.ca reporter said overall she would give the quality of the food a seven out of 10. It was good but nothing spectacular.
As mentioned earlier, the Fiesta Americana Holguin Costa Verde resort offers a few different places to eat, including Italian, Mexican, Cuban and Asian specific restaurants along with buffet options for breakfast and lunch. Our reporter enjoyed starting her day off with a fresh-made omelette and smoothie from the breakfast buffet. At lunchtime there was a taco restaurant open which became the go-to place for her mid-day munch. In the evening she tried a different “country” restaurant each night.
As for precautions to take when indulging in food and drink while visiting Cuba, follow the usual steps that should be taken when visiting a Caribbean destination. Our reporter took Dukoral and a shot for Hepatitis B before leaving Canada. The resort did their part as well by providing bottled water in the room and even made their ice cubes from bottled water.
Cuba is very sunny. Bring lots of sunscreen. Our ThriftyTourist.ca reporter found two travel-size bottles was not enough. And while our reporter didn’t have any issues with bugs at night (probably because of the time of the year) others who have visited Cuba report that mosquitoes and gnats come out in the evening, so pack some bug spray if you’ve still got room in your suitcase.
Be thrifty and practical! This information was accurate when published, but can change without notice. We recommend you confirm all details with the provider in question before planning your excursion.
Photo credits: TripAdvisor. Air Transat.