I love my baby sister, Samantha, dearly. Despite our 13-year-age difference, we have a typical sibling relationship. One minute we are driving each other crazy. The next minute, we’ll have each other in stitches laughing at one of our own foibles, or some crazy event in our day. We are probably more alike than we would like to admit. We are both very decisive people, but a lot of times it feels like her decisions are more impulsive, while I can deliberate on something.
As we were both making our arrangements for travel to Cuba, Sam went ahead and booked airfare and hotel for herself, her kids and our mother, who happens to live with her, without coordinating with me. Not a big deal, as we were traveling to Cuba to attend a cousin’s quinceañera. We all had to be there for the Aug. 4 event.
When I finally got around to making my travel arrangements, I asked Sam for the name of the hotel that she was staying at in Varadero, a beach resort adjacent to the town where our cousin’s family lived. She had booked the Hotel Gran Caribe Sun Beach. When I went to look up the hotel, the reviews were not great. I took that as a sign that perhaps I should book my stay at another hotel nearby. Besides, it had been years since I had traveled with my sister and mother together. Activities with one of them at a time—my mom and me or my sister and me—was manageable. With the three of us together, there was always a chance for someone to be an odd man out. Plus, since my sister was bringing her kids, ages nine and four, the possibility for drama increases exponentially.
I started researching hotels in Varadero online. For each hotel I considered, the first few customer reviews were glowing. But after the third or fourth review, they turned negative. After about an hour of researching hotels, I turned to my Lonely Planet Guide and was immediately drawn to the Hotel Tuxpán, or rather its description as being “cheap” and having “Soviet architectonics.” The online reviews for the hotel were consistently in the middle, which I took to be an accurate description of the lodgings and amenities. Plus, it was right on the beach. Sold!
As I had mentioned in my post from Sept. 10, 2018, “Socialized food,” most businesses in Cuba remain nationalized. The hotels that my sister and I were staying at were owned by the government, giving us insight into a paradox we saw played out throughout our time on the island—a socialist government catering to tourists with different price points and services at its hotels. The Cuban people were held as classless, but some tourists were more equal than other tourists, to borrow phrasing from George Orwell. Having access to both hotels, I witnessed the tension between socialist doctrine and tourism—the intent of making amenities and services equal between the two hotels but in reality, some amenities and services were “more equal” than others. On their respective websites, the Hotel Tuxpán is rated as a four-star hotel, servicing a clientele made up of Canadians, Russians, Mexicans and Spaniards, based on my observations and interactions as a guest. The Hotel Gran Caribe Sun Beach is listed as a three-star hotel with an equal amount of Cuban and foreign tourists. The disparities in amenities that were intended to be equal across both properties are best exemplified in the meals offered at the hotels.
A buffet just like home
I’ve always said that cooking at a hotel—be it a buffet or a plated dinner—was a challenging task. Cooking for large groups doesn’t allow for a lot of creative or complicated cooking. Most hotels do an average to an above average job in the meals they turn out. Since my expectations were a touch lower than average, I was pleasantly surprised with the buffet at the Hotel Tuxpán. Everyday, there was a selection of canned vegetables, salads, fresh fruits and fruit drinks. For European guests, cold cuts and cheeses took its place among the salads, beans and pickled meats. The main entrées were laid out in their chafing dishes—an assortment of Cuban and Continental favorites such as roast pork, black beans and rice, pasta in marinara sauce and sautéed chicken. Chefs were also stationed at the buffet to make omelets, shrimp scampi and other dishes. As for beverages, those were served tableside by the gracious waitstaff.
Equal but different
On the day my sister, her kids and our mother arrived at their hotel in Varadero, we joined them at the buffet at their hotel. It was odd in that the selection was nearly identical to what was being served at our hotel, however there was less variety—less pickled meats to select from; less salads to choose from and less sides to pick. Perhaps because the hotel was rated three stars instead of four, hotel management thought it was appropriate to offer less selection, but apart from that, nearly everything else looked to be the same items that were being served at our hotel. The wait staff were noticeably less enthusiastic to serve, however with a high percentage of Cuban nationals staying at the Hotel Gran Caribe Sun Beach, the tips were probably not as good as hotels where they are a higher number of foreign travelers.
My mother observed that certain universal techniques, such as scraping the cooktop after each use, was ignored by the chef on duty, making the cooktop and the food coming off it not as “clean” as it should have been. Social doctrine might dictate that all things be equal, but there’s no accounting for human behavior to tip the balance ever so slightly.
Since both hotels had inclusive packages for meals and drinks—including alcoholic beverages, my sister wryly observed that “with enough alcohol, you don’t care how crappy the food is.”
Potato chips—they are not just for snacking
One of the oddest selections at the breakfast buffet at the Hotel Caribe Sun Beach was potato chips under a heat lamp at breakfast.
Potato chips. Under a heat lamp. At breakfast.
Potato chips. At breakfast. Under a heat lamp.
Any way you write it, it’s odd to serve potato chips at breakfast and have them warmed under a heat lamp. Why under a heat lamp? Considering that both hotels power down the lights and Internet access in the lobby areas before midnight and require guests to use their room keys to power electricity in their room, it felt like a waste of energy.
I’ve never thought of potato chips as being a Latin American delicacy, especially since the modern chip was first cooked up in the states. I always thought plantain chips were the preferred salty snack throughout most of Latin America. However, it looks like in the years since the revolution, potato chips have invaded the island. This became obvious when lechón (roast pork) and moros y cristianos (black beans and rice) were served under a blanket of potato chips during the day two of the two-day celebration of my second cousin’s quinceañera celebration. I pushed the chips aside that had been served on top of my meal and enjoyed the traditional Cuban meal as prepared by my cousin’s ex-wife, Kateherine.
When food is not the main attraction
In selecting the hotel in Varadero, it was probably one of the few times in my adult life where the quality of the food did not matter. The visit to Cuba was really about getting to know my father’s homeland and his family, and spending quality time with my loved ones. The first night in Cuba, when it was just me and my son, Keller, at dinner, we sat at our table with our meals and drinks before us. Keller took one look at me and thanked me for bringing him to Cuba, not for the food, though we would eventually have some excellent meals on the trip. He was just happy to be on the island.