“ Hotel and dive center in Maria La Gorda, Cuba. „
Spending six weeks in the Caribbean on a student budget is a luxury that I could only afford thanks to a University field trip to the Isla de la Juventud off the coast of Cuba. After two weeks my fellow students and lecturers left and I was free to enjoy the rest of my summer - another month of backpacking through Cuba. Now when people (myself included) think of backpacking the first things that come to mind are cheap street food, very basic accommodation and following the beaten trek as it is way cheaper to catch a bus than rent a car.
The first couple of weeks in Cuba were just that, lovely casa particulares that I shared with other travelers, heaps of street pizzas and rum that was cheaper than water. And believe me - we all had a great time. And then suddenly my two travel buddies reached the end of their stay and went back home, leaving me in Vinales one morning on my own. As a backpacker you sort of learn how to recognize other travelers and within a couple of hours I had made a new friend. She was part of an organized tour group and the only girl in her mid-20s in a group full of older, more settled people. They were about to leave to Maria la Gorda, which is supposedly the best dive site in the Caribbean, and her tour guide didn´t mind me tagging along. And that is the story of how I ended up staying in a high end hotel in the middle of nowhere dramatically overstaying my budget instead of roughing it.
* * * Location * * *
Maria La Gorda is literally in the middle of nowhere. You are closer to Mexico than Havana. This is as far away from everything as you can get in Cuba and due to the inaccessibility still off the beaten trek. The hotel is the most westerly tourist facility in Cuba and is considered one of the nicest beaches in the entire region. Frankly, the beach is not as great. Yes, it is a lovely white sand beach with leaning palm trees and crystal clear waters. However, there are rocks along the entire coast making swimming rather difficult. I don´t think it is worth going there just for the beach - if you are into diving it is well worth it but if it is beaches you are looking for try Varadero or Playa del Este instead.
The easiest way (and sometimes the only way to get there) is by using your own transport. Rental cars are fairly cheap in Cuba so it is worth considering getting one of you are with a group of people. Don't rely on public transport, there are supposed to be daily busses from Vinales and Havana but I know no one who ever managed to get one and minibus service is only available if enough people book it a day in advance. If you don´t want to drive yourself your best bet is to get a taxi. Expect to pay 40CUC to/from Vinales and 80 to/from Havana. Trust me; it is not fun getting stuck in Maria La Gorda because you haven't sorted out your return trip as it is fairly expensive to stay here.
I speak from hindsight as I sort of hitchhiked with a tour group to Maria La Gorda. They offered to take me back to Vinales but there was more diving that I wanted to do so I stayed longer. It took me 2 extra days to find someone that took me back to civilization in their rental car. All was good in the end as I made some great new friends that way.
The hotel is located in a National Park that encompassed the entire peninsular. Lots of nature, no village for miles and a long white sand beach right in front of the hotel are the main attractions of this Cuban region.
* * * The hotel * * *
The one and only hotel in Maria La Gorda is a fairly nice resort with space for around 70 people, I was there on low season so only few rooms were filled. Our tour guide told me that rooms sell out very quickly in high season so book online or phone ahead, nothing would be more frustrating than driving 3 hours and being turned away. There are no other accommodation options around and please don't listen to the rumors of casa particulars or anything. The next village is over 30min by car away and there is no accommodation available in the national park.
Prices range from 29CUC to 60CUC depending on room size and season. It is usually possible to book a two day trip from Havana with a one night stay at the resort. Checking in was very straight forward and the staff was lovely. There is no ATM but you can exchange Euros into CUC (although at a very bad exchange rate). Hotel reception can help with organizing you a taxi and even helped me to find a ride-share with some other people staying at the hotel back to Havana.
My room was absolutely lovely and obviously way over my budget. Even though I booked a single room I had two single beds to choose from. There was also a table, TV with some English channels, a fridge and a fairly large bathroom. Hot water was sporadically available and water pressure seemed to be somewhat on the weak side during the daytime. My absolute highlight were all the fresh towels and the little toiletry selection that I found in the bathroom. If I take a break from backpacking then I might as well take it in style. For 29CUC per night not a bad deal especially if you can share it with another person. The 29CUC is for an off-season room without any meals. Usually they will give you a room for 33CUC which includes breakfast but you can ask without is as well.
All rooms have aircon and for a few CUC extra you can get seaview from your window. The walls are quite thick and the different houses far enough away from each other to guarantee very quiet, relaxing nights.
Internet access is rare in Cuba and the last place I expected to find 3 fairly modern computers was Maria La Gorda. But there you go, 6CUC will buy you 1 hour of fairly decent connection. My tip is to upload some pictures of the beach on facebook while your family/friends are stuck in rainy England!
There is a small shop selling overpriced cosmetics, swim accessories and snacks. A pharmacy and a small health centre are on the grounds as well but luckily I never had to use any of them, therefore cannot really comment on their quality. What I would like to mention here is that you are a 5 hour round trip from the next bigger city away in case of a medical emergency. It helps to remember that when jumping of the pier when it is dark or when touching corals while not knowing how a fire coral looks like.
* * * Food & Drink * * *
The only options expect starvations are the hotel buffet restaurant and the hotel bar. There is a tiny hotel shop that sells ridiculously overpriced crisps and drinks but you are better off buying things in Pinar del Rio. Especially water is with 2.50CUC for a bit bottle way too expensive.
The bar is right next to the reception with a nice view over the beach. Don´t expect much more than beers, Mojitos and Cuba Libre. Cocktails start with 3CUC and soft drinks are with 1.40CUC very expensive (A tu cola should be around 0.50CUC). You can order cheese and cheese & ham sandwiches for 3CUC which is the only viable alternative if you don´t fancy spending a crazy amount of money on the buffet restaurant.
I´ve had some great nights in that bar but others were absolutely boring. Maria La Gorda seems to be a resort frequented by middle aged couples, which is by no means a bad thing, but don't go there expecting crazy party nights. We did have one great night getting very drunk on expensive rum with a Dutch couple that had just gotten engaged. It all ended in a midnight swim and a hangover from hell the next morning. Unsurprisingly nobody turned up for the 9am dive the next morning. As a solo traveler you might struggle meeting people and for me nothing is more frustrating than diving without a buddy that I don't know/trust.
The seafront restaurant is a typical resort buffet place were decent food is served that will fill you up but not really excite anyone. Breakfast is with 4CUC reasonably priced and the selection is quite good as well. As long as you stay away from the horrific scrambled eggs you can enjoy the usual selection of fruits, bread and jam, sweets and sausages. If you are planning to join the 9am dive maybe try not to eat too much - I spend 10 very long minutes feeling very full and very motion sick on the dive boat.
Dinner is again your typical unimaginative buffet style grab for 12CUC. It is all you can eat and you can dine on everything from salads to fresh fish, chicken and rice. I only had dinner once and it really was not memorable. The thing is that your only alternative are cheese sandwiches with mustard and there are only so many of those that you can eat. So you will properly end up eating at the restaurant anyway at some point during your stay.
* * * The diving * * *
Maria La Gorda is supposedly one of the finest dive spots in the Caribbean. With sites located at depths from 6 to 40 meters and most of them being only a quick boat ride away from the shore it does indeed sound stunning. With 42CUC per dive including equipment hire it is an expensive fun compared to other dive sites but they offer packages for six up to twenty dives. If you know that you are staying longer it is definitely worth booking a package right away.
Just turn up at the allocated dive times (9am, 11am and 3pm) at the dive centre next to the restaurant. All you need is show them your license if you have one and sign a health and safety form. Nobody really cares if you are a qualified diver though and even if it is your first time they will still take you on. You can hire all the necessary equipment there or use your own if needed. The equipment is ok but there are only few wetsuits so try to keep hold of yours if it is a size they don't have many of.
The trip starts with a short boat ride and an even shorted briefing. Sometimes the briefing was literally "Just enjoy it" and questions regarding depth, visibility and difficulty were ignored. There was never any explanation of the dive sites or which buddy system would be used. Dive signs were not explained and no emergency procedures mentioned. Scuba diving is a very safe sport if you know what you are doing - not having proper briefings introduces a very unnecessary element of danger.
The actual dive sites were of varying quality. If you have dived before refuse to go to Garden of Gorgonians, it is a shallow dive site that is rather boring. In my opinion they go there when the instructors cannot be bothered to do anything more challenging. There are stunning tunnels and drop-offs so make sure to ask for specific things that you want to see and don´t waste that much money on a boring shallow water dive. My favourite sites were Moby Dick and Between two Waters.
The instruction was so-so. There were several dive instructors and dive masters. The centre is generally Spanish spoken but some of the staff speak ok English as well. Personally I was not very happy with the instructors. The lack of pre-dive briefings was shocking and there was no de-brief either. Before going on a dive one should be aware of things like depth or dangers. Diving through tunnels at a depth of 30m is not something everyone enjoys - although I loved it!
In my group was a particularly obnoxious woman that kept touching corals and broke sponges just to get a better picture of whatever she was focusing on. Although the instructor saw this he never pointed out the dangers of this behavior to her. There was also no mentioning of dangerous animals like fire corals or lion fish.
Cave diving and night dives were advertised, however, we could not do either as no underwater torches were available. The famous black corals are well worth a visit if you can convince the instructors to take you there.
* * * Other activities * * *
Here we come to one of the worst experiences I had during my Cuba trip. The hotel offers during the breeding season as visit to a beach in the National Park to observe the turtles. So far my experience with protected areas in Cuba has been great and as a biology student I was very much looking forward to the experience. What I naively expected were scientific guides and a well-organized trip that would keep us in a fair distance to the turtles. What really happened was a complete disaster showing an utter lack of respect for nature by both tourists and guides.
The tour was 20CUC and started around 9pm. A bus picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the most westerly point of the National Park. The ride was quite nice and we got to see a fair amount of wildlife. After one hour we reached our destination and found ourselves at a huge beach covered in shells and (unfortunately) rubbish. There the waiting began. Instead of a talk or any kind of information our guide sat down and had a nap. We others sat around for a couple of hours enjoying the experience of being far away from civilization at a beach that Robinson Crusoe would have loved.
The whole theatre started when some of the park staff found a turtle that was about to start laying eggs. The entire group was brought there and some people settled down within one meter of the turtle. All warnings of not using flash lights when taking pictures were forgotten and people went crazy. I just don´t get why you would take around 200 pictures with thirsty min instead of actually watching what is going on. But anyway, things went from ok to quite bad when the guide started taking out some of the eggs and passing them around. People, look with your eyes and not with your hands! He even allowed people to lie down and catch the eggs from underneath the turtle. There´s just no reason to do something like that.
When then one of the guides jumped on the back on the poor creature to pose for pictures my night was finally ruined. I do understand the Parks need to make money but it can be done with so much more taste and respect for the nature.
Apparently the hotel offers occasionally other activities as well but the turtle one was the only one offered while I was there.
* * * Would I go again? * * *
As much as I love Cuba I don´t think that Maria La Gorda will be on my travel list again. There is nothing really wrong with it and I can perfectly understand while people spend their entire holiday there. It is just simply not my type of place. For a start it is far too expensive and even if I wasn´t a student I would much rather stay in casa particulares than this rather anonymous place.
What puts me off is the difficulty in getting there and then of course the complete lack of anything to do. You can´t really go swimming due to all the rocks in the water, the National Park is difficult to reach and does not offer much in terms of hiking and there are only so many times that you can walk along the beach without going crazy. Personally I did not enjoy the diving that much which very well has been clouded by my experience with the people in my group. I guess that if you are with a group of like-minded friends and are a bit more assertive than me you will enjoy it more. As far as diving in Cuba goes I much prefer Playa Larga and Punta Frances.
If you are travelling in Cuba then you should consider taking a daytrip from Havana or Varadero, it is a lovely beach and might just turn out to be your perfect little bit of paradise.