PLAYA GÌRON, CUBA JAN 07
By Nicolas Lakoff
© Copyright 2007-2017
Towards the end of 2006, I was feeling the effects of a crazy busy year with my business and started looking around for another place in Cuba to explore and dive. I went to see my travel agent Martine and I gave a few ideas and a price range and I let her do some research for me. She got back to me a few days later with a few options which included a place called Playa Gìron, in Matanzas province, Cuba. This area is also known as the infamous Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs), where anti-Castro forces trained by the CIA attempted a beachhead in order to establish an insurgency and overthrow the Castro communist regime. There is only one resort in Playa Gìron today and Martine told me that they had just opened it up to tourists again after a long hiatus and that’s why the price was so good for a two week stay. I found out later that the resort had been closed to tourists for about two years in total. The plan was that the Cuban government would use the resort to host Venezuelan high officials in Hugo Chavez’s government who is a close ally of the Castro government. In fact what actually happened is that doctors that had been working in Venezuela as part of an exchange agreement between the two countries were offered stays at the resort as a reward for their work on behalf of Cuba.
I booked a two week trip from December 29th 2006 to January 12th 2007. There was no direct flight anywhere near Matanzas so I had to land in Varadero and take a transfer down to Playa Gìron. Everything was included so when I cleared customs in Juan Gualberto Gòmez airport there was a taxi waiting for me. I actually expected a bus to take me but there didn’t seem to be any one else going there. The taxi was a recent model black Skoda that ran rather well. He asked me in Spanish if I minded if he stopped by his home for a few minutes before we were on our way. Of course I was tired from the flight but decided to be gracious and communicated my consent. Besides I was alone in the cab and I could sprawl out if I wanted to as opposed to the 4 hours in the plane. We drove to his neighbourhood in the city of Matanzas. He invited me inside to have a look at his home that he was obviously very proud of. His home was nicer than most Cuban homes I’d seen so far. He motioned to me to come to the back yard and showed me his most prized possessions; some fighting cocks that he used in local cock fighting matches. Before I go on, I want to assure my readers that I don’t condone cock-fighting or any cruelty to any animal of any sort for any reason. That being said he was my ride, I was now alone with him in his house and I decided that the wisest thing was to go with the flow and reserve judgment. From what I could understand with my limited abilities with Spanish was that he was in business with another man and that what little they made from the betting they used to better their lot in life. After the tour and him picking up his lunch we headed off to the car. He now asked me if it was ok to stop off at his partners place for a few minutes and no more. I again agreed and told myself that I might never again get the opportunity to see this sort of window to Cuban reality in the new millennium. We drove off to another part of town this time. As we drove through the barrio, I came face to face with conditions that we consider squalid and they consider normal or above normal. His friend lived in a nicer house than most save one important difference, there were roosters everywhere! His friend was in the back plucking feathers from one in his lap. From what I surmised there was a specific way to prepare them for the fights. All around the courtyard there must have been over 100 roosters and the noise that comes with them. All of a sudden a branch fell down from one of the tree in the yard and the roosters went crazy and the noise increased by at least 30 decibels! At this point I’m getting impatient and decided to walk back to the car so the driver would get the idea that I wanted to go. Sure enough a moment later he came out and we were on our way. The drive took about two hours part of which I stretched my limited Spanish into an intelligible conversation and when I felt I could go no further I thought a snooze was warranted.
Finally we arrived in Playa Gìron, I tipped my driver and registered in. I was given a villa right up on the beach and quickly settled in. It was clean, the water pressure was good and the A/C worked so I couldn’t ask for anything more. The Playa Gìron Horizontes Hotel would probably be considered a 2 to 2 and a half star resort by most travellers. Right now half the compound is still closed undergoing various renovations and maintenance. From my observations the resort seems to have been built out of the ashes of a much older resort.
There is surrounding the main beach a crumbling 1950’s era breakwater that is perilous to walk on (watch your step!) but makes for beautiful pictures at sunset. Further east there is an old concrete boardwalk that seems to have been part of a sprawling complex of resorts built in a time when Cuba was America’s playground. When I explored these areas I imagined the big cars of the 50’s, saxophones and trumpets of the musicians and people dining by the seaside smoking cigars and their Malboro cigarettes, sipping their Mojitos looking out at the sunset. The pool is clean but has seen better days for sure. That being said, I was charmed by this off the beaten path Inn and its wonderfully welcoming staff.
The Dive center is adjunct to the hotel but at the moment was being repainted as part of general maintenance that was under way in most of the resort. So the next day I boarded a shuttle to a place called Caleta Buena where the dive shop was temporarily being housed. There I met two very nice and seasoned dive instructors called Chirino and Ronel. The only ones along with me on the bus to go diving was a young couple from Finland. These two were actually only staying a few days as they were touring Cuba for a month. Actually from what I gathered there were only about 20 guests in the hotel in total at the moment. Since the hotel just recently reopened it might take some time before travel agents start promoting it again as a destination. Most of the diving that is done here is on the east side of the Bay of Pigs as the western side is a closed military area. All of the diving here, save the diving off of Caleta Buena, is shore diving.
To get there at the beginning we took the hotel shuttle but a few days into my stay we were being shuttled in an old Russian transport vehicle surnamed “La Guarandinga”, where the driver sits literally on top of the motor! This also coincided with the dive center being reopened in the hotel after a beautiful paint job which included beautiful map murals of all the dives sights in the area.
Not disparaging the shore dives, the best dives I did in Playa Gìron were off of Caleta Buena however since they only have a simple fishing boat with an out board motor, the weather has to be perfectly calm before we get to dive there. Out of 25 dives I did over my two weeks only 4 were in this area. Curiously I was under the impression that since this was the stage for the aborted invasion of Cuba that their would be military wrecks we could dive here but it turns out that most of them are lying in 700 meters of water, oh well!!
Being in Playa Gìron at this time of the year marks the first time I am abroad during New Years. Being so few guests, we were using the small dining area as opposed to the buffet that is normally used when the resort is full. The food was okay however not as much variety which is understandable considering there are so few guests. However the cook very often asked us what we wanted and prepared us very fresh fish for supper on many occasions even cooking us lobster at one point. For New Years Eve the staff decorated the terrace area with lights and palm leafs and set up an open pit fire and roasted a pig to ring in the New Year. It was really delicious. I took the opportunity to wear a traditional Cuban Guayabera shirt that my mother bought for me on a recent trip to Havana. Since there are a lot of big German tourists that come through there she was able to find me a shirt that fit. After supper we were all invited to the disco to ring in the New Year. Normally this disco is off limits to locals but tonight everyone from the town was invited including their children. It was a very festive ambiance and I felt very fortunate to be part of it. It was moving for me, knowing the difficulties and hardships of living in Cuba, to see them celebrate life and look to the future with hope, gratitude and love. Also this was the first time that I really saw ordinary Cubans dancing and it was really a treat. These people really have music in their souls and it’s translated in how their body’s move to the rhythms of Salsa, Mambo, Cha-cha-cha, Son and Rumba to name a few. A very memorable night indeed!
A phenomenon I observed while I was in Playa Gìron was the almost universal love Cubans have for their Telenovelas, Soap Operas. Young or old, men as well as women can be seen glued to their television sets watching them. If you need assistance while one of the more popular ones is on be prepared to wait a little longer to be served. Ironically I kept thinking how despite geographic differences people a basically the same. This could be a group of Canadians watching the NHL finals or Brazilians watching the World Cup. We all need our diversions to elevate us out of our daily grind. Mine is scuba!
Another story I have to relate is how two men approached me on the beach to try to entice me into going to a casa particular for a meal. It would consist of turtle soup, fish, lobster complete with salad, plantain, rice and beer or soft drink all for the price of 10 CUC ($10 USD). I had been offered this before in Cayo Coco and Cienfuegos but never had anyone offered it with turtle soup. Of course I was upset at that and tried to explain to them the importance of leaving turtles alone as they were a big draw for divers and their populations are in decline. As I made my point one of the two was very attentive and even though I didn’t want to go for his offer we struck up a conversation. He told me that before he sold meals to tourists he had tried his hand at some other business ventures. It is pretty much illegal in Cuba to have your own business unless you have a government permit and these are few and far in between. This anti-capitalist philosophy however doesn’t put enough bread on the table for most Cubans and they often turn to the black market to buy and sell. His first attempt was opening a bakery from his house. Since buying too many baking supplies would be difficult and would attract attention he devised an ingenious way to ply his trade. Customers would come in and tell him what they wanted, ie a cake, and he would then tell them what ingredients he needed and the quantities. They would then come back with the supplies, he would bake the cake and they would pay him. It worked for a while but ultimately he got caught. “Do you know how they caught me?” he tells me with a wry smile. The policemen smelled the aroma of the baking constantly coming from his home and surmised that it was more than just for personal use. He was arrested, fined the equivalent of several months of an average Cubans pay and all his baking equipment confiscated. Not at all put off, he decided to embark on a new career as a carpenter making custom furniture. He bought himself some woodworking tools and started taking orders. The problem in Cuba is that lumber is not readily available to most because of the cost and the Islands forests are state property and therefore protected. Despite the risk he would venture out into the woods and get what he needed and for a time he was doing well. One day however, as he was foraging in a National park for wood, he ran face to face with a park ranger. Once again he was arrested, fined and his tools were confiscated. He tried a few other things all with about the same results which bring us to the present and the turtle soup. I had to say I was impressed at his tenacity and told myself that once the embargo lifted, this one was surely going to succeed in life. For now we simply shook hands and went off our separate way.