This post is long overdue, but I still wanted to share a recap of my experience in Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba at the end of December. This was only my second all-inclusive vacation (the first was in Playa del Carmen, Mexico in 2012), and I had heard mixed reviews about vacationing in Cuba prior to my trip. My boyfriend had been multiple times and wasn’t super keen on returning, but once we explored our options, we quickly realized it was the most affordable choice for the time of year. We were looking for an easy and relaxing beach vacation to unwind at the end of the year, and decided to book.
Here’s a summary of my experience for anyone looking travel to Cayo Santa Maria in the future:
Cayo Santa Maria is a small island off of Cuba’s northern coast, known for its beautiful beaches and all-inclusive resorts. To get to the island, tourists fly into Santa Clara airport (the teeniest, tiniest airport I’ve ever travelled to – seriously, our departing flight from Cuba was one of two departures scheduled for that night) and then take a one hour bus ride to the resorts. Hurricane Irma in the fall of 2017 caused considerable damage to this area, including to the highway that connects Cayo Santa Maria to the main island. The resorts were reopened in mid-November, but we weren’t sure what to expect when we arrived.
We were relieved to find that most damage had been repaired by the end of December, when we landed for our vacation. The weather was a perfect 25°C and sunny during the day, and cooled off at night to about 18°C. Hurricane season in Cuba is June – November, and after some pre-trip Googling I was convinced we would be met with swarms of mosquitos and sand fleas that appear after heavy rainfall. However much to my relief, this was not the case. We were lucky to steer clear of rain almost entirely, and were able to soak up the sunshine and avoid the harsh Canadian winter at home.
The beaches were beautiful, with soft sand and turquoise waters. Due to the hurricane, there were some minor debris still left along the coast, but nothing that took away from our experience. The water was calm, and shallow enough to wade into for a few hundred feet – great for a non-swimmer like me.
We chose to stay at Ocean Casa del Mar, a relatively new resort that opened in 2016. I was attracted to the modern design, which was initially what drew me in when searching through different resorts to stay at online. When we arrived, my boyfriend was instantly impressed with the resort in comparison to some of the others he had stayed at before. I, on the other hand immediately zoned in on the stained linens, rugs and towels. After the initial shock, I was able to look past this, and accepted that this was a somewhat normal quality standard for a cheap, all-inclusive resort.
I would rate the overall cleanliness of the resort a 7/10, but I did appreciate all of the modern touches – especially the pink walls outside of all the units. The air conditioner in our room worked well, which was important for staying comfortable in the heat, and we had convenient access to both the pool and the beach. The grounds of the resort had been affected by the hurricane, so it was bare in some areas, but I could tell that the landscaping would be beautiful in a few months time.
The resort put on a show in a stage area by the lobby each night at 9:30 with live singing and dancing. We caught it a few times but spent most evenings relaxing in our room and binge-watching Ozark episodes I had downloaded to my phone before we left, lol! Other activities including dance lessons, pool games and Spanish lessons were also available, but we spent almost all of our daytime just relaxing on the beach.
This was what people had warned me the most about before the trip. Anyone I talked to who had travelled to an all-inclusive resort in Cuba did not have great things to say about the food. I think this almost worked in my favour, because my expectations were so low when I arrived that I was pleasantly surprised by the selection!
Ocean Casa del Mar had a variety of themed restaurants (that were located in the same spaces, but changed theme based on the night of the week – Italian, Asian, Seafood, etc.), and a main buffet that served breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were definitely a few unusual items on the menu, but for the most part we didn’t have any trouble finding things to eat each day (though we did consume a LOT of fries). We figured out early on that the best food was at the beach. With a number bars spaced out along the sand, they had fresh whole grilled fish, burgers, and even paella on a few occasions.
While overall I was okay with the food situation, I did notice a few questionable practices happening at the resort. For example, the same spatula was used to portion out, cook and serve the raw chicken, beef and pork at the grilling station. I had also received a few warnings to avoid eating the produce, as it could be washed in tap water – which often contains bacteria our digestive systems aren’t accustomed to. We made it through the week without any stomach issues (thankfully), but once we were home both my boyfriend and I were sick for a week. I’m not exactly sure what the culprit was, but it could have been one of the above.
Tips for travelling to Cayo Santa Maria
- The plugs in Cayo Santa Maria are different than North American plugs. Bring an 220v compatible adapter to be able to use and charge your appliances.
- Cell service is rare, if not impossible to find. Wi-fi must be purchased at most resorts and is spotty at best, so plan accordingly – or better yet, plan to go off the grid!
- If you have some extra suitcase space, gently used clothing, cosmetics and gifts are great to bring to Cuba to donate to hotel staff and locals, who are super appreciative of anything you give them.
I personally love the carefree nature of an all-inclusive vacation, and would love to go on more trips like this in the future (hint: there may be another one coming up very soon!). If your thing is sitting on the beach, unplugging and having a few cervezas in the sand, Cayo Santa Maria is definitely an affordable option to consider.