Hurricane Irma struck the north coast of Cuba on Sept. 9, 2017. There was not only great concern for the people in the city of Caibarien and those on Cayos de Villa Clara — the three small islands of Santa Maria, Ensenachos and Las Brujas — but also fear that the 30-mile causeway, the Pedraplén, that joins the mainland with the Cayos would be irreparably damaged.
In a legendary feat of resilience and determination, the causeway was repaired in 51 days, allowing for a sense of normalcy, not only for the locals but also for tourists, outdoor enthusiasts and tranquility addicts, to continue when visiting a part of Cuba they find irresistible.
George and Lori, a couple from Dieppe, New Brunswick, related how this was the second year they decided to spend three weeks on Cayo Las Brujas. When asked what was the attraction, they said, in true "Seinfeld" fashion, that their vacation was "about nothing": Doing nothing, chilling out, getting away from busy routines, enjoying walks on the beach, engaging with the friendly staff at the Hotel Dhawa, and appreciating their own companionship. No busy cities like Havana. No busy resorts like Veradero. Just relaxation and smiles.
Frank Oltuski Rodrigues, the VP of marketing at Gaviota, the tour operator that owns local hotels and sightseeing vehicles, noted in his talk at the 38th session of FITCuba, the International Tourism Fair held this year in Cayos de Villa Clara, “I can assure you, there is an endless source of emotions and unforgettable experiences for vacationers visiting us from all and any part of the world."
And I have to admit that he hit the nail on the head. Aside from attending the conference talks, there were opportunities to visit the resorts and the towns in the province of Villa Clara as well as a healthy mix of experiences to please most vacationers.
When travel agents are selling Cuba, here are 6 ways they can encourage their clients to chill in the warmth of northern Cuba:
It’s a bit of a ho-hum generalization to talk about a destination and say that the people are friendly. But in Cuba, everywhere, and particularly in the north, there is a comfortable warmth in the smiles you receive and a feeling of genuine welcome.
For me, it came in the form of a tough-looking farmer, tilling the soil with two oxen in the heat of the day, but waving at me as I indicated I wanted to take a few photos. It came from one of the gardeners at the Hotel Dhawa, who stopped his work every morning to wish me “buena” (good day). It came from our server at the Hotel Meliá Las Dunas, who grew up in the area and engaged us, from the moment we sat down, in conversation, laughter and suggestions for enjoying the Cayos. And it came from Luis Cartell, a fisherman who, in the town square of Sagua La Grande, displayed the craft of mending nets, and with his proud, smiling granddaughter by his side, he indicated with five fingers how many decades he had been making a living from the sea.
Flamingos and flora
Traveling on the causeway, almost at the point where Cayo Santa Maria joins Cayo Las Brujas, we saw a flash of brilliant pink scooting away from us in the marsh. We discovered that American flamingos (along with grackles, egrets, stilts, cormorants, pelicans and 170 other species of birds) inhabit the Buenavista Biosphere Reserve in the northern region of Cuba.
This is comforting news to the estimated 18 million birders in the U.S. who actively travel to watch and photograph birds, but it’s also a positive omen in general, for visitors to the area. Conservation, sustainable practices and respect for the land, flora and fauna are all hallmarks of Cuba, but perhaps not as appreciated as much as in the North.
Singing, dancing and drumming
The Conga La Salsa Band, an energetic male ensemble, paraded through the town of La Estrella, but every so often they would wend their way into a huddle and then feed off each other’s close-quartered energy.
Singing, drumming, dancing, Afro-Cuban rhythms, traditional Cuban folk songs and Buena Vista Social Club tunes are ubiquitous in the North. And you can even throw in a few instrumental versions of Beatles songs and Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah."
Every hotel, restaurant, café, town celebration and opportunity to socialize is paired with the strumming of guitar chords, snappy percussion beats, the scraping of a guiro and the mellifluous voices of male and female singers.
Crafts and conversations
Excuse me, but there’s a giraffe, a deer and a mouse blocking my photo. It is kind of amazing what you encounter on the streets. At the giant town party in La Estrella, these 8-foot puppets walked through town, bouncing to the music, while their diminutive puppet masters controlled the movements with their hands, knees, bodies and sticks.
But Cuban crafts have always had some cachet. There are the wooden sculptures of Cuban characters smoking huge cigars, leather masks of simple country folk, Che Guevara t-shirts, beautiful paintings sold on the street or in galleries, plus the usual inexpensive kitsch that you find in many tourist destinations. And, in Cuba, it’s not always the art that attracts the visitor, but often the repartee with the person manning the art stall.
Food and drink
Ok, it’s only my opinion, but it seems that the further east and north you travel in Cuba, the better the food! In Cayos de Villa Clara the "mmmms," "wows" and that telling silence that accompanies total culinary satisfaction were characteristic of most meals, where the chefs were more than willing to meet the patrons.
But, even when we had more rustic outdoor grills, the food was outstanding, with shrimp, lobster, chicken and pork, accompanied by flavorful rice and boiled or steamed fresh, and local veggies, taking center stage. And, it’s refreshing to know that the cocktail scene in the Cayos prevails in the resorts with classic drinks as well as creative interpretations.
Accommodations no longer a deficit
Cuba, as a whole, is on target to erase what they call "the hotel room deficit." The Cayos de Villa Maria area is totally in sync with the 12-year plan to construct 103,000 new hotel rooms by 2030.
The hotels that we visited reflected modern, impressive designs with many showcasing lobby, grounds and beach areas that were a hub of activity and a pleasure to hang out in. Aside from the Hotel Dhawa, where we stayed, we visited Hotel Playa Cayo Santa Maria, Hotel Iberostar Ensenachos, Hotel Valentin Perla Blanca, Hotel La Ganjita, Hotel Meliá Las Dunas and Las Terrazas.
Many of the myths about Cuba — the food, the tourism infrastructure, the attitude of locals toward tourism, and even the availability of WiFi — have been turned on their head over the last few years. In a sense, Cuba is re-crafting their tourism industry, through education, training, international hotel partnerships and by listening to the needs of vacationers — and they are succeeding tremendously. The warmth of northern Cuba is a great example.